Demystifying the facts about HPV & the importance of cervical cancer screening

This Cervical Screening Awareness Week, from 14th – 20th June 2021, we are demystifying facts about HPV and celebrating the importance of cervical cancer screening. Although 8 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every day across the UK, the good news is that 99.7% of cervical cancer cases are preventable.

What is HPV?

The Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus affecting both men and women, that 90% of people are exposed to when they become sexually active. In the majority of cases, the virus clears with no harmful side effects, but in a small proportion of women it goes on to cause pre-cancerous and potentially even cancerous changes to the cervix. There are lots of different types of HPV, but the high-risk strains (especially numbers 16 and 18) are more commonly associated with cervical problems.

Cervical screening identifies the disease in its earliest stages and, boys and girls are now offered the HPV vaccine from the age of 12. This means that cervical cancer is close to 100% preventable with the combination of HPV vaccination and regular cervical HPV screening.

Missed smear test – what are my at-home cervical cancer test options?

Successive lockdowns in the past year mean many women have missed routine cervical cancer screening appointments. Insufficient capacity and a growing backlog for the NHS national screening programme means many women have experienced significant delays in screening, and those cervical cancers are likely undiagnosed.

Attending a cervical smear test can seem intimidating and cause anxiety for several reasons - including not knowing what to expect, embarrassment, and fear of an uncomfortable experience. Whilst these are valid concerns, cervical smear testing is often quick and painless and some of these tips can help make the experience more comfortable. There are also alternatives options to screen for the HPV virus so you can continue to take control of your own healthcare.

What is HPVCheck and how is it different from NHS screening?

HPVCheck is a way of removing most of the barriers that stop women from attending cervical screening appointments. Just like NHS screening, the test looks for the presence of high-risk HPV, however, HPVCheck can be easily performed by a woman in the comfort and privacy of her own home. A speculum examination is not needed as the woman self inserts a sampling device that merely needs to go to the top of the vagina. The sensation is rather similar to the insertion of a tampon. If high-risk HPV is detected, then a traditional smear test will be needed to look at the cells on the cervix. 

With an at-home HPV test, approximately 10% of those tested will test positive for HPV and proceed to a follow-up smear test. This means that the vast majority of women who self-test in the privacy and comfort of their own home can avoid visiting the GP or hospital altogether.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

For effective cervical cancer prevention and risk reduction, you should be aware of what to look out for and if you have any of these symptoms you should talk to your doctor straight away. The symptoms to look out for are:

  • Unusual bleeding
  • Pain and discomfort during sex
  • Unpleasant smelling vaginal discharge

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How to reduce your risk  

There are also a number of lifestyle changes that can significantly reduce your risk of cervical cancer including:

  • Reporting any abnormal bleeding/symptoms to your GP
  • Getting vaccinated against HPV (Human papillomavirus)
  • Having regular cervical screening appointments from the age 25+
  • Stopping smoking – find out more about starting an NHS smoking cessation programme today

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Remember to get screened – it saves lives

If you’re due a smear test in 2021, attend the appointment if you can. We understand that for some people attending a cervical smear is just not possible, and that’s fine! Check4Cancer offers an at-home test to check for HPV (the virus that can lead to cervical cancer) so that anyone can get checked. HPVCheck is a fast and more convenient way to test for the HPV virus in the privacy of your own home.