Cervical cancer : Prevention

There's no single way to completely prevent cervical cancer, but there are things that can reduce your risk.

Cervical screening

Regular cervical screening is the best way to identify abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix at an early stage.

Women aged 25 to 49 are invited for screening every 3 years. Women aged 50 to 64 are invited every 5 years. For women who are 65 or over, only those who have not been screened since they were 50, have had recent abnormal tests or have never been screened before are still eligible for screening.

Make sure your GP surgery has your up-to-date contact details so you continue getting screening invitations.

It's important to attend your cervical screening tests, even if you've been vaccinated for HPV, because the vaccine does not guarantee protection against cervical cancer.

If you've been treated for abnormal cervical cell changes, you may be invited for screening more frequently for several years after treatment. How regularly you need to go will depend on how severe the cell changes are.

Although it can identify most abnormal cell changes in the cervix, cervical screening is not 100% accurate. This means you should report any symptoms, such as unusual vaginal bleeding, to your GP, even if you've recently had screening.

Cervical cancer vaccination

The cervical cancer vaccination programme uses a vaccine called Gardasil, which protects against 4 types of HPV, including the 2 strains responsible for the majority of cervical cancers (HPV 16 and HPV 18). It also helps to prevent genital warts.

Girls are offered the childhood immunisation programme. The vaccine is routinely given to girls when they're 12 to 13 years old, with 2 doses given over a 6-month period. Girls who are over the age of 15 when vaccinated will need 3 doses.

Although the HPV vaccine can significantly reduce the risk of cervical cancer, it does not guarantee that you will not develop the condition. You should still attend cervical screening tests, even if you've had the vaccine.

Avoid smoking

You can reduce your chances of getting cervical cancer by not smoking. People who smoke are less able to get rid of the HPV infection from the body, which can develop into cancer.

If you want to give up smoking but do not want to be referred to a stop smoking service, your GP should be able to prescribe medical treatment to help with any withdrawal symptoms you may experience.

For more information and advice on giving up smoking, see treatments for stopping smoking.

Safer sex

Most cases of cervical cancer are linked to an infection with certain types of human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV can be spread through unprotected sex, so using a condom can reduce your risk of developing the infection.

However, the virus is not just passed on through penetrative sex: it can be transmitted during any type of sexual contact. This includes any skin-to-skin contact between genitals; oral, vaginal or anal sex; and using sex toys.

Your risk of developing an HPV infection increases the earlier you start having regular sex and the more sexual partners you have, although women who have only had 1 sexual partner can also develop it.