Cervical health: what you need to know

Cervical health: what you need to know

This article was refreshed in January 2023 to reflect recent research and information.

[7 MIN READ]

In this article:

  • Cervical Health Awareness Month is a great time to think about your sexual and reproductive health and find out how to protect yourself from cervical cancer.

  • Regular health screenings and HPV vaccinations can help prevent cervical cancer.

  • Cervical cancer is one of the most treatable cancers when found early.

  • Recent studies associate the HPV vaccine with lower cervical cancer rates.

With the start of a new year, many of us vow to prioritize our health and well-being. While these goals are often centered around weight loss or stress reduction, it’s also important to prioritize your sexual and reproductive health.

January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. The Women’s Health team at Providence wants to encourage you to take charge of your sexual and reproductive health. You can do this by talking to your doctor about the best ways to protect yourself against cervical cancer and other cervical health issues.

About cervical cancer

Cervical cancer begins in a woman’s cervix – a narrow cylinder at the bottom of the uterus that connects to the vagina. Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Statistics show HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the country. It’s spread through vaginal, anal and oral sex or intimate skin-to-skin contact. In most cases, HPV infection clears up on its own. When it lingers, HPV can cause health concerns like genital warts or cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer is almost always preventable, though, with regular health screenings and vaccination against human papillomavirus (HPV). Still, the American Cancer Society states that each year, nearly 14,500 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with cervical cancer and more than 4,200 die due to this largely avoidable disease.

Cervical cancer screening

Not that long ago, cervical cancer was one of the leading causes of death for women in America. The introduction of the Papanicolaou test, commonly known as the Pap test, cut those numbers dramatically. Regular screenings that lead to earlier detection come with a better chance of successful cervical cancer treatment and a much higher survival rate, according to the American Cancer Society.

Two main tests screen for cervical health issues:

  • The Pap test looks at cells taken from the cervix to detect abnormalities that may become cancerous if left untreated.
  • The HPV test identifies whether the HPV virus is present in the body.

New screening guidelines

In 2020, the American Cancer Society updated its guidelines for the early detection and prevention of cervical cancer. The new guidelines start screenings at an older age and replace the Pap test with HPV testing.

The new guidelines state:

  • Cervical cancer testing should start at age 25 instead of 21, as was suggested previously.
  • If you’re between 25 and 65, you should have a primary HPV test every five years.
  • If primary HPV testing is not available to you, screening should include a co-test that combines an HPV test with a Pap test every five years or a Pap test alone every three years.
  • If you’ve had a hysterectomy in which your uterus and cervix were removed, you can stop both Pap and HPV testing unless the procedure was done as treatment for cancer or serious pre-cancer.
  • You should follow the screening guidelines even if you’ve been vaccinated against HPV.

It can be difficult to keep up with changing guidelines. Your gynecologist is aware of these updates, so just remember to schedule your yearly appointment and talk with your doctor about your cervical health and screenings while you’re there.

Should I continue with screenings after childbirth?

One misconception many women have is that, after you have children, there is no need to continue with cervical cancer screenings. The American Cancer Society says this is not true and recommends women follow the guidelines listed above, regardless of childbearing.

Protect yourself from cervical cancer

HPV vaccination (also called GARDASIL 9) offers protection for your sexual and reproductive health by preventing cervical cancer. Much like other vaccines, the GARDASIL 9 vaccine stops diseases caused by bacteria and viruses by prompting your immune system to respond. It’s given as a series of two or three doses, depending on your age when first vaccinated.

According to the Centers for Disease Control guidelines:

  • HPV vaccines are recommended at age 11 or 12 and may be given as early as age 9 for both boys and girls.
  • If not done earlier, vaccination is recommended through age 26.
  • If you are 27 through 45 years old, talk to your doctor about whether you should be vaccinated.

The HPV vaccine dosing works best if it’s given before you are exposed to the HPV virus. It prevents new infections but does not treat any that are already present when your vaccination takes place.

HPV vaccine research

A study published in 2021 found that the availability of the HPV vaccine relates to fewer cervical cancer cases in young women. The study compared the number of deaths from cervical cancer in women from 2001-2005 (before the HPV vaccine was available) to 2010-2017 (after the HPV vaccine was available). The researchers found that cervical cancer deaths decreased by 43% in females who were able to get the vaccine, with the total number of cervical cancer cases dropping significantly by 38%.

Another study noted that, since the introduction of the HPV vaccine, rates of cervical cancer have dropped for women ages 15-20.

Researchers believe that the number of cervical cancer cases will continue to go down as more young people get the HPV vaccine. It’s important to get the vaccine before someone is exposed to HPV, which is why the CDC recommends getting your kids vaccinated as early as age 9.

Talk with your doctor about your options

Talk to your doctor about your sexual health when discussing your physical health. The two are often intertwined.

If just the thought of talking to your doctor about your sexual health makes you squirm, you are not alone. It can be embarrassing and uncomfortable to speak honestly and openly about your body, and you may not know where to begin. It can be even more difficult to discuss topics like this with your child’s pediatrician – especially if your child is in the room. Rest assured, physicians are well-versed in this area and can help you talk about it in a way that’s comfortable for you.

The American Sexual Health Association has several resources to help you get the conversation started. Here are some questions to ask your doctor related to your sexual health:

  • What steps should I be taking to protect myself from sexually transmitted infections?
  • How can I talk to my partner about sexually transmitted infections?
  • I want my partner and me to get tested before we begin a sexual relationship. How do I bring up the subject? Where do we go for testing?
  • Now that I’ve outlined my sexual history, do you think I need testing to determine if I have a sexually transmitted infection?
  • How frequently should I be tested?
  • Are there any vaccines I should consider?
  • What birth control options are available?

The idea of talking about your body may be new to you. Still, it can make an invaluable difference in your sexual health. Find a doctor you can trust and take the first step to ensuring a healthy sexual and reproductive life.

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Find a doctor

If you are looking for a gynecologist, you can search for one who’s right for you in our provider directory.

Related resources

Women’s health: Everything you need to know

HPV of The Mouth: What it Means and How to Treat It

Cervical cancer prevention: The good news

Preventing cancer with a much-needed vaccine

Gynecologic oncology care now available at Providence Cancer Institute

 

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care provider’s instructions.

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