Cervical Health Awareness

January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. Approximately, 13,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer yearly. Cervical cancer is typically caused by HPV (human papillomavirus), in which there are more than 150 related viruses. HPV is a virus that can cause the cervical cells to change. It is passed during all sexual activity, not just penetration, from person to person by direct skin to skin contact. It is quite common and can be spread even if an infected person does not appear to have any signs or symptoms. Despite, this alarming fact, HPV is preventable with vaccination, limiting the number of sex partners, regular pap smears (pap tests), and HPV testing. 

HPV Vaccines

The HPV vaccine is recommended for boys and girls at the age of 11 or 12 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) because it is more effective at this age. In the preteen years, only two doses of the vaccine are needed. The vaccine is needed in three doses for anyone between the ages of 15 to 45. The vaccine can help prevent low-risk types that may cause genital warts or high-risk types that can lead to cervical cancer.

Limiting the Number of Sex Partners

Individuals who have had many sexual partners are more likely to become infected than those who only have one. Keep in mind, just having one partner does not guarantee an individual is safe from contracting the virus. By limiting the number of sexual partners and avoiding sexual relationships with those who have had many can help lower your risk. 

Pap Smears

Pap smears should be done regularly, which your healthcare professional can determine when to start and how often it should be done. This test will look for precancers and determine if there are any cell changes on the cervix. HPV can become dormant and then reappear, even years later. Even if you decide to abstain from sexual activity, it is advised to continue to do routine testing. It also typically takes 3-7 years for any cell changes to become cancerous. As you can see, regular pap smears are necessary as it can help detect any changes in the cells before it becomes cancer. 

HPV Tests

HPV tests may be recommended if your pap smear was abnormal or if you are 30 years old or older. This test is done the same way as pap smears. It can be done at the same time as a pap smear, which is called co-testing or done by itself. This test looks for high-risk HPV within the cells. It can also help determine which women are at a higher risk for cervical cancer. 

Most sexually active individuals will get an HPV infection in their lifetime and most people who are infected do not know they are infected. Did you know even though males can contract HPV, there is no testing available? This makes it harder to stop the spread and why HPV is so common. Since it is so common, it is important to consider vaccination, limiting sexual partners, and get regular testing done.