January is Cervical Health Awareness Month
January 12, 2023
Written by: Dr. Kaci Axelson, OB/GYN
The cervix is an organ of the female reproductive system that connects the uterus and vagina. The cervix is a unique organ that protects the uterus from harmful bacteria, while also allowing for childbirth. It is also uniquely susceptible to cancer.
Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by certain strains of human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is very common, affecting approximately 80% of the human population, sometimes with no signs or symptoms of infection. Gynecologists and other providers use a Pap test to check for precancerous and cancerous cells of the cervix that are most often the result of HPV infection. The test is recommended for women beginning at age 21.
Because HPV is so common, and can cause cervical and other kinds of cancers, maintaining regular checkups for reproductive health is important to overall and continuing health. Keep reading to learn more about HPV and reducing your cervical cancer risk with a simple Pap test.
HPV & Cervical Cancer Risk
HPV is a common human virus with over 200 known strains. Most people’s immune systems defeat these viruses on their own before some the virus strains cause warts. From common childhood warts that appear on hands, to plantar warts on the feet, these are caused by strains of HPV that are not associated with cancer.
Instead, 14 types of HPV (known as high-risk HPVs) contribute to cervical and other cancers and are transmitted only by sexual contact. Some high-risk HPVs can cause warts affecting the genitals, but many people have no symptoms of infection. Because pre-cancerous or cancerous cells of the cervix may not develop for years (or decades) after HPV infection, testing for cervical abnormalities is vitally important to early detection and treatment.
While not all people who contract HPV will develop cervical cancer, most people with cervical cancer have HPV. According to the National Cancer Institute, nearly all sexually active people are infected with HPV within a few months to a few years of becoming sexually active. Like other cancers, some cervical cancer cases are spontaneous or related to causes other than HPV infection.
What is a Pap Test?
A Pap test collects cells from the cervix for diagnostic testing. Under a microscope, a laboratory will determine whether cervical cells are normal, pre-cancerous, or cancerous.
Precancerous cells (or pre-cancers) are cells that have developed abnormal changes (mutations) to their DNA. Most pre-cancers resolve on their own, but some require medical treatment. According to the American Cancer Society, when pre-cancers are found early, treatment can prevent almost all cases of cervical cancer.
Symptoms of Cervical Cancer
People with cervical pre-cancer or early cervical cancer often experience no symptoms. Remaining on schedule with Pap tests as recommended by your doctor for your age and personal risk is instrumental to early detection of pre-cancer and cancer. Early treatment is lifesaving.
More advanced cervical cancer can show symptoms, such as:
- Bleeding between periods, after intercourse, or after menopause
- Discharge that is watery or bloody, possibly heavy with a foul odor
- Pelvic pain, or pain during intercourse
See your doctor if you have any of these, or additional symptoms that concern you.
The HPV vaccine is recommended for children aged 11 or 12, though vaccination can begin as early as age 9. Early vaccination is recommended at an age before exposure to HPV occurs.
If not vaccinated early, the series is recommended through age 26. Vaccination after age 26 is not generally recommended, as most people have been exposed to HPV by age 26.
Learn more about the HPV vaccine, safety, recommendations, plus additional information for HPV prevention from the Centers for Disease Control at https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/hpv/hcp/recommendations.html.
Find a Provider
For Cervical Health Awareness this January, make a plan to catch up on health screenings, like your Pap test. To find and schedule an appointment with one of our OB/GYN providers, call 920.262.4825 or find one by clicking on the link below.