How cervical screening works

The Cervical Screening Test is a simple test done every 5 years to check for human papillomavirus (HPV) – a common infection. Discover what your options are, what to expect at an appointment and what happens with your results.

Find out where you can get a Cervical Screening Test, who does them and how to book.

What the Cervical Screening Test is looking for

The Cervical Screening Test is a simple process look for signs of the human papillomavirus (HPV) – a common infection that causes most cervical cancers.

Most cases of HPV clear up on their own, however, sometimes it can develop into cancer.

Doing the Cervical Screening Test every 5 years means your healthcare provider can monitor or investigate HPV further if needed.

When booking your appointment

When booking an appointment, tell them if you:

  • would prefer a woman does the test
  • have a disability which means you need extra support to do the Cervical Screening Test
  • need the help of an interpreter during your appointment.

It’s also best to check if there are any costs when making your appointment. There is a Medicare rebate for the Cervical Screening Test and the consultation, but some healthcare providers charge a gap fee for the consultation.

At your appointment

You’ll be in a private space with your healthcare provider – usually a doctor, nurse or healthcare worker.

If you’re unsure what to expect or are worried, you can talk about the process and ask questions first.

You can take a family member or friend with you to your appointment to help you feel more comfortable.

You can choose to screen by:

  • collecting your own vaginal sample (self-collection)
  • having your healthcare provider collect your sample.

Both options are equally accurate and safe ways to find HPV.

Talk to your healthcare provider about the right choice for you.

Having your test

If you choose to have your healthcare provider collect your sample

Usually, you need to take off your clothes below the waist. You lie on your back, with your knees apart. You will be given a sheet to cover yourself. You can ask for a sheet if you’re not given one.

The doctor or nurse will gently insert a speculum (a duck-bill-shaped device) into your vagina, to hold it open. They will then take a small sample from your cervix using a swab. It may feel strange but should not hurt. If it hurts, tell your doctor or nurse straight away.

Diagram showing the location of the cervix at the top of the vagina.

This diagram shows that the cervix (the neck of the womb) is at the top of the vagina. The area around the cervix is the transformation zone. Above the cervix is the cervical canal, which connects the cervix to the uterus (womb). Branching out from either side of the womb are the fallopian tubes and ovaries.

If you choose to collect your own sample (self-collection)

Talk to your doctor, nurse or health worker about this option. They will talk to you about how to take the sample. You can then take the sample yourself in private, or with help from your doctor, nurse or health worker.

Self-collection involves inserting a swab into your vagina and rotating it for 10 to 30 seconds. This should not hurt but may feel a bit uncomfortable.

Read the fact sheet and instructions and talk to your healthcare provider about this option.

National Cervical Screening Program – Cervical Screening in Australia

This fact sheet helps healthcare providers to discuss whether self-collection may be an option for participants in the National Cervical Screening Program. It is usually provided during a consultation.

National Cervical Screening Program – How to collect your own vaginal sample for a Cervical Screening Test

This factsheet shows participants how to collect their own vaginal sample for a Cervical Screening Test.

After the appointment

The sample goes to a lab for checking and they send the results to either the practice or health service:

  • where you had the test
  • that you nominate.

The lab also sends your results to the National Cancer Screening Register (NCSR). The register holds your cancer screening records and is a good way to keep track of your test dates and results. The NCSR will send you a letter when you’re next due to screen.

National Cancer Screening Register contact

Contact the National Cancer Screening Register to update your contact details or if you have questions about either the National Bowel Cancer or National Cervical Screening Programs. You can call between 8am and 6pm Monday to Friday, except national public holidays, from anywhere in Australia.

View contact

Getting your results

Your healthcare provider will tell you your results when they come back. 

For most people, the results will be that no HPV was found. Your healthcare provider will advise you to do the Cervical Screening Test again in 5 years.

For self-collected samples where the results show a standard type of HPV was found (all types except 16/18), your healthcare provider will ask you to return. They will then collect a cervical sample for further testing to figure out what to do next.

For clinician-collected samples where the results show a standard type of HPV (all types except 16/18), your healthcare provider will advise you to do the test again in one year to check whether the HPV is still there. If your HPV has cleared up after one year, your healthcare provider will advise you to do the test again in 5 years. If your HPV has not cleared up after one year, you will be advised to do the test again in a further one year.

For a small group of people, the results will show a certain type of HPV (types 16/18) that is more sensitive. If that’s the case, your healthcare provider will refer you for further assessment.

Read more about understanding your results.

Last updated: 
1 July 2022

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