Cervical screening

Cervical screening is offered to women aged between 25 and 64. It aims to prevent cervical cancer. The screening test, often called a smear test, detects early pre-cancerous changes in cells that line the cervix. Most changes are caused by persistent infection with high risk types of the human papillomavirus (HPV). Any changes can be monitored or treated.

Northern Ireland Cervical Screening Programme

The cervical screening programme is for women who have no symptoms of disease. All women registered with a GP in Northern Ireland who fall within the screening age range are automatically invited to attend for a screening test.

Women aged between 25 and 49 are invited every three years and women aged between 50 and 64 are invited every five years.

Make sure your GP has your correct name and address so you receive your invitation for screening.

Cervical screening information video

A video showing what you can expect when you get invited to attend cervical screening can be found at the link below:

This video is also available in:

How reliable is cervical screening

Screening will pick up most changes in the cervix but can’t find them all. Changes can also happen between tests so you should contact your GP if you are concerned about symptoms at any time.

Where to have cervical screening

Screening is usually carried out by a nurse at your GP practice. You may be able to have the test at a sexual and reproductive health clinic. Contact your local Health and Social Care Trust for more details.

What happens at a screening appointment

A screening test takes about 10 minutes. You’ll be asked to undress from the waist down and lie on your back, with your knees drawn up and apart. Your lower body will be covered with a sheet.

The nurse will insert a speculum into your vagina to hold it open. A small soft brush is used to pick up a sample of cells from your cervix. This might be a little uncomfortable but shouldn't be painful.

The sample is sent to the lab, for examination. It may also be tested for the presence of high risk HPV.

Cervical screening results

Results should be available within four weeks. In nine out of ten cases the results will show no changes to cells in the cervix. These women will be invited for screening again in three or five years’ time.

Sometimes there are not enough cells in the sample for the lab to examine. This happens in about three in every 100 tests. In this case you will be asked to return for a repeat test in three months’ time.

If the result shows minor changes in the cells, the sample will also be tested for high risk types of HPV. If there is no HPV, the risk of significant cervical disease is very low and no further investigations will be needed at this time.

If HPV is found, or the changes in the cells need further investigation, you will be referred to a colposcopy clinic for examination. A result showing changes in the cells is common, but doesn’t mean you have cervical cancer.

Colposcopy examination

A colposcopy is an examination of the cervix with a type of magnifying glass. It lets the doctor or nurse look more closely at the changes on the cervix to decide if treatment is needed.

The examination is similar to the screening test and takes about 15 minutes. You should allow up to an hour for the whole visit. This will include consultation with the colposcopist about the procedure and a nurse will be present to assist you during the examination.

A small sample of tissue (biopsy) may be taken from an area of the cervix during the procedure. This may be uncomfortable but shouldn’t be painful.

The colposcopist will explain if you need any treatment. Sometimes this can be done at the time of your colposcopy, or you may be asked to come back when the results of the biopsy are available.

The treatment is usually simple and can be done under local anaesthetic. The choice of treatment will depend on your case.

Follow-up after treatment

Approximately six months after treatment, you will usually be offered another screening test to check your treatment has been successful. This test will be carried out at the hospital clinic.

Although one in five women are invited back for another colposcopy, only a few will need further treatment. This is because it can take longer than six months for your immune system to clear HPV after treatment.

Your hospital team will keep you under review until they think you can safely return to routine screening tests.

What happens to your sample and data

All cervical screening slides are kept by the lab for 10 years. Staff working for the screening programme may see and review your records as a way to monitor and improve the quality of the screening programme and the expertise of the specialist staff. Any information relating to you will remain strictly confidential.

If you are diagnosed with cervical cancer, your previous screening history and results will be reviewed.  You will be able to see the results of this review if you wish.

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