3 things women should know about cervical health

Each year, an estimated 11,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer. While the numbers and diagnosis may be daunting, most cases are preventable through early detection and regular screenings.

January is Cervical Health Awareness Month and during this time of visibility, doctors and health advocates want women to know how to take the steps to help prevent cervical cancer and the virus that can cause it, HPV (human papillomavirus). Here are three things to know to help keep your health in check. 

1. Cervical cancer is linked to HPV

Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV, a sexually transmitted infection.

The CDC says 79 million Americans, or about 80% of the population — most in their late teens or early 20s — are infected with HPV. Anyone who is sexually active can contract HPV and to make matters more difficult, most people with HPV don’t even know they are infected. Regular use of condoms can prevent infection with HPV.

Symptoms, such as genital warts, may develop years after exposure. If exposed to HPV, the immune system typically prevents the virus from doing any harm but the virus can survive for years in a small percentage of people, which may eventually cause cervical cells to become cancer cells.

2. Cervical cancer is preventable through screenings and vaccines

Cervical cancer tends to occur in midlife, most frequently diagnosed in women between the ages of 35 and 44.

To get a head start on prevention, women should begin cervical cancer screenings at 21. Two screening tests for women between the ages of 21 and 65 are available to help prevent cervical cancer or detect it early:

  • The Pap test looks for precancerous cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer, if they are not treated. If your test is normal, some doctors recommend waiting three years until your next Pap test.
  • The HPV test can accompany a Pap test and is recommended for women after the age of 30. The swab test, looking for DNA in cervical cells, can detect an HPV infection that can lead to cell changes. As long as the high risk types of the virus are absent, this can be done every five years until the age of 65.

Most women with cervical cancer have never had a Pap test, or have not had one recently, according to the American Cancer Society. If a test is abnormal or if any signs point to cervical cancer, doctors may look at the cervix with a microscope and do biopsies. Most doctors do repeat Pap smears a few months after an abnormal one. Some Pap smears return to normal after later testing, but it is important to make sure more serious abnormalities have not developed.

For those in their adolescent years and early 20s, an HPV vaccine is recommended through age 26. The CDC recommends two doses of the vaccine for boys and girls around ages 11-12. It can be given as early as 9 years old. The goal is to protect your child before they are exposed to the disease.

3. There are 100 types of HPV that can affect you

It may be hard not to worry about the risk with how widespread HPV can be. The Cleveland Clinic reports about 100 types of HPV affect different parts of the body.

The American Cancer Society advises focusing on what you can control by making healthy lifestyle choices, caring for your well-being and taking advantage of the abundance of preventive screenings available.  

Screenings are the best weapon to find the disease early, when treatment can be most successful. Many plans offer coverage for these services at no cost, check with your provider for more information.

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