Screening is a way of finding out if people have a higher chance of having a health problem, so that early treatment can be offered or information given to help them make informed decisions. This page gives an overview of screening, with links to some of the different types of screening offered by the NHS in England.
What is screening?
Screening is a way of identifying apparently healthy people who may have an increased risk of
a particular condition. The NHS offers a range of screening tests to different sections of the
The aim is to offer screening to the people who are most likely to benefit from it. For example, some screening tests are only offered to newborn babies, while others such as breast screening and abdominal aortic aneurysm screening are only offered to older people.
If you get a normal result (a screen negative result) after a screening test, this means you are at low risk of having the condition you were screened for. This does not mean you will never develop the condition in the future, just that you are low risk at the moment.
If you have a higher-risk result (a screen positive result), it means you may have the condition that you've been tested for. At this point, you will be offered further tests (called diagnostic tests) to confirm if you have the condition. You can then be offered treatment, advice and support.
Finding out about a problem early can mean that treatment is more effective. However, screening tests are not perfect and they can lead to difficult decisions about having further tests or treatment.
Read on to find out about the benefits, risks and limitations of screening.
What types of screening are offered by the NHS in England?
The NHS offers many screening programmes in England, a few are listed below.
Cervical screening is offered to all women and people with a cervix aged 25 to 64 to check the health of cells in the cervix. It is offered every 3 years for those aged 25 to 49, and every 5 years from the ages of 50 to 64.
When to book cervical screening
Try to book your appointment as soon as you get invited. If you missed your last cervical screening, you do not need to wait for a letter.
It's best to book an appointment for a time when:
you're not having a period – also try to avoid the 2 days before or after you bleed (if you do not have periods, you can book any time)
you have finished treatment if you have unusual vaginal discharge or a pelvic infection
Breast screening is offered to women aged 50 to 70 to detect early signs of breast cancer. Women over 70 can self-refer.
During breast screening you'll have 4 breast X-rays (mammograms), 2 for each breast.
The mammograms are done by a specialist called a mammographer. The mammographer will be female.
The mammograms only take a few minutes. The whole appointment should take about 30 minutes.
Bowel cancer screening
Everyone aged 60 to 74 is offered a bowel cancer screening home test kit every 2 years.
If you're 75 or over, you can ask for a kit every 2 years by phoning the free bowel cancer screening helpline on 0800 707 60 60.
You use a home test kit, called a faecal immunochemical test (FIT), to collect a small sample of poo and send it to a lab. This is checked for tiny amounts of blood.
Blood can be a sign of polyps or bowel cancer. Polyps are growths in the bowel. They are not cancer, but may turn into cancer over time.
If the test finds anything unusual, you might be asked to have further tests to confirm or rule out cancer.
Always see a GP if you have symptoms of bowel cancer at any age, even if you have recently completed a NHS bowel cancer screening test kit – do not wait to have a screening test.
You can also watch animations about NHS screening: