Cervical cancer prevention
The key to preventing invasive cervical cancer is to detect any cell changes early, before they become cancerous. Having regular cervical smear tests is the best way to do this. How often you should have a smear test depends mostly on your age and also on your individual circumstances.
In England and Northern Ireland, women aged 25-49 are invited for a cervical smear test every three years. Women aged 50-64 are invited every five years.
In Wales, women aged 20-64 are invited for screening every three years.
In Scotland, currently women aged 20-64 are invited for screening every three years. From 2015 women in Scotland aged 25-49 will be invited for screening every three years and women aged 50-64 invited for screening every five years.
For women aged 65 and over, only those who have not been screened since the age of 50, or have had recent abnormal tests, are screened.
Normally a smear test is not necessary if a woman has had a hysterectomy. The doctor will advise whether a woman who has had a hysterectomy needs a different type of test called a vault smear.
If you have had precancerous changes or cancer of the cervix, your doctor will recommend a schedule of follow-up examinations and tests.
Avoidance of human papilloma virus (HPV) infection is important in the prevention of precancerous and cancerous changes of the cervix since certain high-risk strains of HPV cause most cases of cervical cancer.
First sexual intercourse at an early age is associated with increased risk of contracting HPV. Abstinence is one way to prevent the transmission of HPV. Likewise, barrier protection, such as using condoms, may prevent HPV infection, although this has not yet been fully studied.
In the UK, girls aged 12 to 13 are offered the HPV vaccine, which is given by a nurse at school (after parental consent). Vaccination is not compulsory. It is up to the girl and her parents whether she has the vaccine. Currently girls have three injections, but that's changing to just two from autumn 2014.
It is estimated that, if girls take up the vaccination, the programme will prevent at least seven out of 10 cancers of the cervix. However, as it can take between 10 and 20 years for cancer to develop after HPV infection, any benefits from the programme will not be seen for some time. But the number of cases of precancerous changes in the cervix is likely to fall quite quickly. The vaccines are expected to give protection for life but more research is needed on this and it is possible that women may need a booster later on.
Cigarette smoking is another risk factor for cervical cancer that can be prevented, so stopping smoking may reduce your chances of developing the disease.