Cervical cancer screening

Like many cancers, early-stage cervical cancer often doesn't produce symptoms. If not detected until later stages, it can spread throughout the body, which makes screening and early detection important.

At more advanced stages, signs and symptoms of cervical cancer may include:

  • Vaginal bleeding after intercourse
  • Watery, bloody vaginal discharge that may be heavy and have a foul odor
  • Pelvic pain
  • Pain during intercourse

The exact cause of cervical cancer is not fully understood. However, researchers are certain that the human papillomavirus (HPV) plays a role in most instances. HPV is very common, and usually your immune system can fight it off. But in a small percentage of cases, the infection lasts years, which can contribute to cancer development. Researchers believe that factors such as environment and lifestyle play a role.

How often is cervical cancer screening done?

With proper screening, doctors may discover cervical cancer in early stages or even precancerous cells before cancer develops. Women ages 25 to 49 should be screened every three years. Women between 50 and 64 should be screened every five years and there are instances where women older than 65 should also be screened.

If you are at a higher risk of cervical cancer, it may be recommended to receive screening more often. Risk factors include:

  • Many sexual partners
  • Early sexual activity
  • Other sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
  • A weakened immune system
  • Smoking
  • Exposure to miscarriage prevention drugs

How do you screen for cervical cancer?

There are two main methods for cervical cancer screening:

  • HPV DNA test. For an HPV DNA test, your doctor will harvest cells from the cervix. A lab will then test them for the presence of HPV types that are associated with cervical cancer. This is the primary diagnostic in the UK.
  • Pap test. A Pap test involves harvesting cells from the cervix and examining them in a lab for abnormalities that may be signs of cancer or precancer.

Mayo Clinic Healthcare will work with you to determine if screening is right for you and, if so, which options best suit your needs and preferences.

Learn more about cervical cancer at MayoClinic.org