NHS Screening: What, Why and When
The NHS isn’t just there to treat you when you are ill. It’s also there to prevent illness and keep you healthy.
One way this happens is through the NHS screening programme.
What is Screening?
Screening is the term used to find out if someone has a high risk of developing certain serious health conditions.
It is important to say that screening is for people who are generally fit and well.
If someone has symptoms associated with any of the screened conditions, then they should see their GP and not wait to be invited to a screening.
Being invited for screening shouldn’t be anything to worry about. It is about preventing future illness.
Each screening varies, but the most common tests involve either a blood sample, ultrasound or x-ray, physical examination, or collecting a sample of cells.
Finding signs of disease early often gives the best chance of successful treatment.
An example is cervical screening. The test itself looks for signs of Human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes nearly all cases of cervical cancer.
Finding and treating cells with signs of HPV can prevent nearly all cases of cervical cancer from developing.
The conditions that the NHS screens for are all able to be detected early and can be better treated the sooner they are found.
When does screening happen?
Screening begins in pregnancy, with important tests in the first few days of our lives after birth.
Later in life, we’ll be invited to screenings at different times based on our age and bodies.
This video timeline and table below show who is screened for what and when.
|Sickle cell and thalassaemia screening||Pregnant women||First ten weeks||Blood test|
|HIV, Hepatitis B, Syphilis||Pregnant women||8th - 12th week of pregnancy||Blood test|
|Diabetic Eye Screening||Pregnant women with diabetes||Anytime during pregnancy||Reading letters from a chart, drops put in each eye, photos taken of the back of the eyes|
|Foetal anomaly screening (11 conditions including Down's Syndrome)||Pregnant women||10t - 12th week of pregnancy||Ultrasound and blood test|
|New-born screening (eyes, heart, hips, hearing, testicles if male)||New-born babies||First 3 days||Physical examination|
|'Heel prick test' (9 rare but serious conditions such as cystic fibrosis||New-born babies||Five days old||A few drops of blood taken from the baby's heel|
|Diabetic eye screening||People with diabetes||12+||Reading letters from a chart, drops put in each eye, photos taken of the back of the eyes|
|Cervical cancer screening||Women and people with a cervix||25-64||Cell sample collected from the cervix|
|Breast cancer screening||Women||50-74||Mammogram (x-ray)|
|Bowel cancer screening||All||60-74, every two years||Test at home kit|
|Abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) screening||Men||65||Abdominal ultrasound|
Soon after a screening, you will be notified of the result.
If your results are typical, then there is nothing else you need to do. Some programmes test every few years, so you’ll be invited again in the future.
An abnormal result does not mean you have that condition. It means your chances of getting it might be higher.
A clinician will discuss your results and what your options are. This may be further tests or some form of treatment.
Remember, screening is for healthy people. It looks for future signs of illness before symptoms can develop. If you do have symptoms of a condition that you could be screened for, don’t wait – arrange to see a GP.
Who can have the screening?
You are automatically invited for the screening if you:
- have a cervix (even if you are a trans man or non-binary)
- aged between 25 & 64
- you are screened every 3 years between the age of 25 & 49 or every 5 years between the ages of 50 & 64.
What is cervical screening?
Cervical screening is a test that helps prevent cervical cancer also known as a smear test.
Cervical Screening is not a test for cancer. It looks for cell changes (abnormal cells) on your cervix caused by Human Papillomavirus (HPV.)
What is HPV?
Human Papillomavirus is a common virus that is passed through skin to skin contact. 80% of women will have at some point had the virus but usually our immune system will fight it!
How does HPV cause cervical cancer?
For a small number of women, their immune system can't get rid of HPV. If this happens, HPV may stay in your body for many years. This is called persistent infection. Over time, a persistent infection with high risk HPV can cause changes to cells. Cell changes may develop into cervical cancer if they are not monitored or treated. The time between getting HPV and developing cell changes or cervical cancer varies from person to person.
For more information click the links below:
If you have questions about HPV, cervical screening, cell changes or cervical cancer, Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust have information you can trust.
Cancer Research UK - Together we will beat cancer
If you are registered with your GP as a female, you’ll be offered breast screening, also called a mammogram, every three years. It begins at age 50 and continues to 74, as this is the highest-risk age range.
Here are the numbers:
- 1 in every 7 women will get breast cancer
- Nearly 56,000 cases are diagnosed every year in the UK
- 11,500 of those people will die from breast cancer – around 20%.
- That means every day in the UK, 32 people die from breast cancer
The next key figure to look at is preventability: 23% of all breast cancer cases can be prevented.
That means more than 2,600 lives could be saved through screening.
Despite this strong case for screening, the number of people booking appointments when invited has dropped.
In 2006, nearly three-quarters of people took up the offer of breast cancer screening. By 2021, that figure had dropped to 62.8% – barely 2 in every 3 females.
AAA (Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm)
AAA is slightly different to the cancers that are screened for. The screening looks for swelling in the aorta (the main blood vessel from your heart to your tummy).
Usually, there are no tell-tale symptoms. Often the first and only sign of an aneurysm or swelling in the aorta is when it ruptures.
80% of people who suffer a ruptured aorta die. AAA accounts for 6,000 deaths every year in the UK.
Older men are most at risk, and screening is offered in the year you turn 65.
If bulges are found, then, depending on the size, they can be monitored or operated on. Lifestyle changes can reduce risk and stop swellings from getting bigger.
All in all, screening reduces your risk of AAA by 50%.
AAA Screening Easy Guide
Bowel Cancer Screening
The practice firmly believes that this simple test is a valuable aid in detecting any potential signs of bowel cancer cells and we would encourage you to complete and return the kit when you receive it.
Why it's offered
Bowel cancer is a common type of cancer in both men and women. About 1 in 20 people will get it during their lifetime.
Screening can help detect bowel cancer at an early stage, when it's easier to treat. It can also be used to help check for and remove small growths in the bowel called polyps, which can turn into cancer over time.
When it's offered
NHS bowel cancer screening is only offered to people aged 55 or over, as this is when you're more likely to get bowel cancer:
- if you're 60 to 74, you'll automatically be invited to do a home testing kit every 2 years
- if you're 75 or over, you can ask for a home testing kit every 2 years by calling the free bowel cancer screening helpline on 0800 707 60 60
For further information visit https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/bowel-cancer-screening/
You should continue to be aware of any bowel symptoms such as:-
- A persistent change in bowel habit, especially going to the toilet more often or diarrhoea for several weeks
- Bleeding from the back passage without any obvious reasons
- Abdominal pain, especially if it is severe
Please remember that these symptoms do not necessarily mean that you have bowel cancer but if you have one or more of these symptoms you should see your GP.
Should you no longer have the test kit and now wish to take part, you can call the screening free-phone number: 0800 707 6060 and ask for another kit.
The choice to get screened for the conditions we’ve talked about is up to the individual. But there is a powerful evidence base that says screening is the best way to reduce your risk of serious illness or death.