Cervical screening is designed to identify abnormal changes to the cells of the cervix before they potentially become cancerous. The changes are caused by high-risk strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV).
Screening is offered to all women aged 25-64 years: women aged 25-49 attend every 3 years and women aged 50-64 attend every 5 years. Screening stops at 64 if the final 3 screening tests have all been normal (or if the woman has a negative HPV test). If any of the 3 previous tests have been abnormal, screening continues until this criteria is met.
But why does the screening stop at age 64? This is a question I am often asked. The reason for this is that cervical cancer develops very slowly. It actually takes 10-20 years for the HPV infection to cause the abnormal changes that lead to cervical cancer. Therefore it is highly unlikely that a woman who is over 64 and has been regularly screened with normal results, and is negative for HPV, would go on to develop cervical cancer.
If a woman is over 64 and has not had any screening, or has not been for screening since she turned 50, she is entitled to be screened at any age.
What is important to stress is that this is all part of a ‘screening’ programme – therefore it is aiming to identify healthy people who are at risk of developing a disease. It is not a diagnostic test. Therefore, whatever age you are, if you develop any symptoms that concern you then you should always get them checked!