Cervical screening…what does that mean?

Cervical Cancer Prevention Week 19th – 26th January 2014

Cervical cancer is the 11th most common cancer among women in the UK, and the most common cancer in women under 35, though still uncommon in real numbers. Did you know that the main cause of cervical cancer is the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)?

HPV can cause abnormal changes to the cells on the cervix (neck of the womb). The HPV virus is a very common infection and most people who are sexually active will get it at some point. Unfortunately, you wouldn’t know that you have HPV as the virus shows no symptoms. Fortunately, the virus usually clears spontaneously, and any changes to the cervical cells usually resolve on their own. However, for some of us, that doesn’t happen. Cervical screening detects these microscopic changes.

If you are a female aged 25 or above you will receive a letter inviting you to make an appointment for cervical screening. It used to be called a ‘smear test’ or ‘pap smear’. When you receive the letter you need to book an appointment at your local GP practice. At Students’ Health Service this procedure is carried out by one of the nursing team in a 15 minute appointment.

It’s important that you tell your GP practice about any change of address so that we’re sure that you’ll receive a letter.  The best time to make an appointment for is around the middle days of your cycle, when you are not bleeding.

The aim of cervical screening is to detect and treat pre-invasive disease of the cervix which could potentially otherwise lead to cancer.

Cervical screening prevents nearly 4000 cases of cancer per year and saves around 5000 lives.

Cervical cancer is more common if you smoke (women who smoke are about twice as likely to develop cervical cancer as non-smokers), take immunosuppressant drugs, started having sex at an early age or have had several sexual partners, or have had a sexual partner who has had several other partners (however, a woman with only one partner could contract HPV if that partner has previously been in contact with the virus). It’s also important to inform a health professional of any unusual symptoms, such as bleeding between periods or after sex.

Cervical screening is one of the best defences against cervical cancer, along with not smoking, and using condoms regularly.

 HPV vaccination

HPV vaccination also helps to prevent cervical cancer by protecting against the most common HPV viruses. The current vaccine protects against 4 of the HPV types, thus preventing approximately 70% of cervical cancers. There are many HPV types, so even if you have had a complete course of HPV vaccinations it’s important to have regular cervical screening to detect any changes caused by the viruses not included in the vaccination programme.

Further information regarding screening can be found at