Bowel cancer screening
Screening is a way of testing healthy people to see if they show any early signs of cancer.
Bowel cancer screening can save lives. Screening aims to detect bowel cancer at an early stage, when treatment has the best chance of working. The test can also find polyps (non-cancerous growths), which might develop into cancer. Polyps can usually be removed, to lower the risk of bowel cancer.
What is bowel cancer screening?
Each of the bowel cancer screening programmes in the UK use home tests called the Faecal Immunochemical Test (FIT). FIT looks for hidden blood in poo. If you're registered with a GP and within the eligible screening age range, a test will be automatically posted to you, so you can complete it in the privacy of your own home.
In England from April 2021, the NHS in England will gradually reduce the age range for bowel screening. This will be phased over the next four years to include people aged 50-59.
In Scotland, screening starts from age 50.
In Wales you will be invited to take part in bowel cancer screening if you’re aged between 58 and 74.
In Northern Ireland people over the age of 60 are invited to take part in screening.
You will be invited to take part in screening every two years until you reach the age of 75.
We don't send out bowel cancer screening test kits or accept completed kits. Please find your local screening programme at the bottom of this page.
Faecal immunochemical test (FIT)
The bowel screening programmes across the UK uses a test called a Faecal Immunochemical Test (FIT).
The test has a stick attached to the lid. This is used to take one small poo sample and then placed back into the tube.
You will be given a self-sealing, freepost envelope to send the test back to the screening centre. Full instructions and a detailed information leaflet will be sent to you with your invitation and test.
You will get your test results in about two weeks.
Most people will be told no further investigation is needed. This doesn't mean that you don’t have or won't get bowel cancer so you should still see your GP if you have any symptoms. You will receive another test in two years.
Some people will be told that further tests are needed. This doesn't mean you have cancer. The bleeding could be caused by a non-cancerous growth or another health problem. You will be offered more tests, such as a colonoscopy, to find out what is causing the bleeding.
Bowel scope screening
Bowel scope screening is another test that was available in England until April 2020. This type of bowel cancer screening is no longer available.
If you have been invited for bowel scope screening, you will receive a letter inviting you to take a FIT test from April 2021.
There have been a number of challenges with the roll-out of the bowel scope programme due to resource and capacity constraints. The COVID-19 pandemic has put unprecedented additional pressure on this service. Following expert clinical advice and consultation with professional bodies, NHS England have made the decision to stop the bowel scope screening programme.
Read more about changes to bowel scope screening.
For further information, visit the NHS website.
UK bowel cancer screening programmes
Bowel cancer screening in England
- If you’re aged between 60 and 74, you will be invited to take part in bowel cancer screening every two years. Some people aged 56 are also being invited to take part. This is because the age that people are invited to take part is changing. Eventually everyone between the ages of 50 and 74 will be invited to take part
- If you're aged 75 or over, you can ask for a screening test by calling the free bowel cancer screening helpline on 0800 707 60 60
- Call the screening helpline on 0800 707 60 60 or visit NHS for more information about bowel screening in England
- Further information about the FIT test and how to use it is available to download in 10 different languages including Polish, Urdu, Arabic and Chinese (simplified and traditional).
Bowel cancer screening in Scotland
- If you're aged between 50 and 74, you will be invited to take part in bowel cancer screening every two years
- If you're aged 75 or over, you can ask for a bowel cancer screening test by calling the free bowel screening centre helpline on 0800 0121 833
- Call the screening helpline on 0800 0121 833 or visit NHS Inform for more information about bowel screening in Scotland.
Bowel cancer screening in Wales
- If you’re aged between 58 and 74, you will be invited to take part in bowel cancer screening every two years
- If you’re 75 or over, you are currently not able to self-refer back into the programme
- Call the screening helpline on 0800 294 3370 or visit Bowel Screening Wales for more information about bowel screening in Wales.
Bowel cancer screening in Northern Ireland
- If you're aged between 60 and 74, you'll be invited to take part in bowel cancer screening every two years.
- If you're aged 75 or over, you're currently not able to self-refer back into the programme.
Call the screening helpline on 0800 015 2514 or visit the Northern Ireland Cancer Screening website for more information about bowel screening in Northern Ireland.
Benefits and risks of bowel cancer screening
The sooner bowel cancer is diagnosed, the easier it is to treat. But no screening test is 100 per cent accurate.
It's your choice whether to take part in the screening programme. Some of the benefits and risks of bowel cancer screening are listed here.
Benefits of bowel cancer screening
- Taking part in bowel cancer screening lowers your risk of dying from bowel cancer
- Screening can pick up cancers at an early stage, when there's a good chance of successful treatment. If bowel cancer is diagnosed at the earliest stage, more than nine in ten people will be successfully treated
Screening can find non-cancerous growths (polyps) in the bowel that may develop into cancer in the future. Removing these polyps can reduce your risk of getting bowel cancer.
Risks of bowel cancer screening
- Cancer may be missed if it was not bleeding when you took the test. The screening test works by finding traces of blood, which may be from a cancer
- Screening may give a false positive result. This means that you may get an abnormal result when you don't have cancer. Other medical problems and some food and medicines may give a false positive result. This can cause worry and can lead to other tests, such as a colonoscopy. Your screening test will come with information about what may affect the test results
Bowel cancer can develop in the two years between your screening tests. Speak to your GP if you notice any symptoms or are worried about bowel cancer at any time.
Some people who don't have any symptoms and don't fit the criteria for NHS screening choose to pay for a private test. Testing kits are available from pharmacies or from private healthcare companies. If you have any symptoms, you should not do a test but should visit your GP.
The self-test kits you buy over the counter from pharmacies vary in quality, so the results could be misleading. We can't recommend or comment on individual tests without a full review by independent experts. In the meantime, we recommend you speak to your GP.
Some private companies offer bowel cancer screening, where the samples are tested in a laboratory and the results are sent to you. If you're thinking about paying for a private screening test, or your health insurance company offers you a test, ask the company what care or support they offer after you get the test results. They should also tell you how accurate their test is. If the results aren't clear or if blood is found in your sample, you will either need to visit your GP or get a referral for further tests.
You can find out more about private screening here.
- NHS (England)
Information on the bowel cancer screening programme in England.
- NHS Inform (Scotland)
Information on the bowel cancer screening programme in Scotland.
- Bowel Screening Wales
Information on the bowel cancer screening programme in Wales.
Northern Ireland Cancer Screening Programmes
Information on the bowel cancer screening programme in Northern Ireland.
Updated October 2021
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The faecal immunochemical test (FIT) in England (left) and Scotland (right).
Images courtesy of Public Health England and NHS Health Scotland.