Attend for cervical screening when invited – it could save your life

Cervical Screening

This Cervical Screening Awareness Week (20-26 June) the Public Health Agency (PHA) is highlighting the importance of attending for cervical screening when invited.

Between 2016 and 2020 in Northern Ireland, there was an average of 81 people diagnosed with cervical cancer each year and around 21 deaths per year.

“When you receive an invitation for cervical screening, it is really important to accept the invite and attend for the screening – it could be life-saving,” Dr Tracy Owen, Interim Assistant Director of Public Health, Screening and Professional Standards at the PHA, said.

“Cervical screening aims to prevent cervical cancer from developing. It’s often called a ‘smear test’ and checks the cells from your cervix, the lower part of the womb.

“The screening is designed to pick up any changes to these cells so that they can be monitored or treated. Without treatment, where it is required, the changes can sometimes develop into cervical cancer.”

In Northern Ireland, cervical screening is available to women and people with a cervix aged 25–64. This is the age group where screening is of most benefit. Screening is offered every three years if you are aged 25–49, and every five years if you are aged 50–64. 

Invitations are currently running a few months behind schedule, due to the programme being paused in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, if you are concerned that you may have missed an invitation, or if you have any symptoms, you should talk to your GP.

“Many may feel nervous about going for their screening test, especially if it is their first time,” Dr Owen said.

“You may have worries about the actual process of having the test, as well as the results. These worries can put some off going for test. The screening will only take a few minutes and is usually carried out by a nurse. I would urge all those eligible, particularly those who have just been invited for screening for the first time, to see it as a positive step in looking after your health”

Cervical cancer is one of the few cancers that are preventable and it is estimated that in a well-screened population, eight out of ten cervical cancers can be prevented.


If your GP surgery is not able to offer you a screening appointment straight away when you contact them, try calling back in a few weeks. Don’t just wait until your next invitation.

It is also taking a little longer for the labs to report the results of screening tests at the moment, so please be patient. When you attend your appointment, your nurse or doctor should be able to advise when you can expect your result.

The other important way of protecting against future cervical cancer is through the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine which is offered to all girls and boys in Year 9 in school. 

“The HPV vaccine helps protect against two types of the virus that cause most cases of cervical cancer,” Dr Owen said.

“We would recommend all girls and boys receive the vaccine when it is offered to them. It is important that even if you have had the vaccine you should still attend for cervical screening when invited to do so.”

As with all screening programmes, going for a cervical screening test doesn’t guarantee that you won’t develop cancer in the future, although it will significantly reduce the chance. A cancer could develop between screening tests, or there is a small chance that the test misses some changes to your cervix. No matter what age you are, if you are concerned about symptoms such as abnormal bleeding, or pain or discomfort in the lower pelvis, you should seek advice from your GP, even if you attend regularly for screening.

For information about cervical screening, the PHA has a leaflet that can answer all your questions at Screening or check out this animation from the Women’s Resource and Development Agency at

Have questions about attending for a smear test? Check out the FAQs from Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust at Cervical screening (smear test) | Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust (

For more information about the HPV vaccine please visit

Notes to the editor

The HPV vaccine helps protect against two types of the virus that cause 70% of cases of cervical cancer. More info on the HPV vaccine can be found at