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What is NHS Screening, and how does it work?

The NHS’s screening programme is a way to determine if people have an increased chance of specific health problems. The earlier these signs are detected, the sooner the NHS can offer management and treatment


Who is screening for?

It is important to note that screening is aimed at generally fit and well people.

It is about preventing future illness. Being invited for screening shouldn’t be anything to worry about, and it is not a sign that you are any more likely to develop a health condition than anyone else.


What does the NHS screen for, and how does it work?

There are several criteria for which conditions the NHS screens for, but they will be conditions that:

  • Can have higher mortality rates or significant impact on a person’s future quality of life
  • be detectable through testing,
  • early treatment is advantageous
  • the benefit of screening and possible treatment outweighs any risk to patients.

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.


When does screening happen?

Various conditions are screened for, beginning in pregnancy, and carrying on into old age.

Watch our video overview or take a look at the chart below.


What Who When How
Abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) screening Men 65 Abdominal ultrasound
Bowel cancer screening All 60 – 74, every two years Test at home kit
Breast cancer screening Women 50 – 74 Mammogram (x-ray)
Cervical cancer screening Women and people with a cervix 25 – 64 Cell sample collected from the cervix
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.
‘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
New-born screening (eyes, heart, hips, hearing, testicles if male) New-born babies First 3 days Physical examination
Fetal anomaly screening (11 conditions including Down’s syndrome) Pregnant women 10th – 20th week of pregnancy Ultrasound and 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
HIV, Hepatitis B, Syphilis Pregnant women 8th – 12th week of pregnancy Blood test
Sickle cell and thalassaemia screening Pregnant women First ten weeks Blood test


Find out more about which conditions the NHS screens for.


What happens after the screening?

If your results are typical, then nothing. Conditions like cervical cancer, breast cancer and bowel cancer are tested for regularly, so you will be invited again in the future. However, you should not wait for your next screening if you develop symptoms.

If your results are abnormal, this does not mean that you have that condition. This is an important point. It does mean that your chances of getting it may be higher and that further diagnostic tests are needed to find out more.

The NHS has processes to look after people with abnormal screening results. You will have the results explained to you by a healthcare professional so you can make informed decisions about being referred for further tests and possible treatment.


Why does the NHS screen healthy people?

To help people keep as healthy as possible for as long as possible.

It is part of the NHS’s commitment not just to treat ill health but to prevent people from becoming unwell and minimise the impact on your life if a health issue does develop.