Cervical health is a topic many women do not frequently think—or talk—about. For some, it’s brought up only during an annual gynecologic exam. On the other hand, some of us know a woman who has experienced a cervical health condition, which brings the topic front and center.
January is National Cervical Health Awareness Month. In recognition, Dr. Polly Trainor, a board certified obstetrician and gynecologist with Noblesville OB/GYN, sheds some light on common cervical health issues—particularly human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer.
The cervix is the lower part of the female uterus that connects to the vagina. Like many other parts of the body, the cervix is an area where cancer can develop. Fortunately, cervical cancer can often be prevented when pre-cancerous cells are detected early. Most often, cervical cancer is caused by a strain of the human papillomavirus, or HPV.
HPV is a common virus that can be passed from person to person through sexual contact. Studies suggest at least three out of every four people will get an HPV infection during their lifetime. Like many sexually transmitted diseases, HPV often shows no signs or symptoms. HPV typically clears on its own without causing any health problems. However, an HPV infection can persist and may cause a health problem, such as cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer most often develops among women age 30 and older. This is because HPV infections can persist for many months or even years before causing cervical cancer. For this reason, routine HPV testing is recommended for women over 30, along with a Pap smear. When a Pap smear and HPV test are done together on a regular basis, cervical cancer can typically be prevented. With both tests, a healthcare professional collects samples of cervical cells during a pelvic exam.
An HPV test checks for the virus in the cervix, which can cause abnormal cells that lead to cervical cancer. The HPV test uses advanced technology to detect high-risk types of HPV. Knowing whether you have HPV helps determine if you are at risk for cervical cancer.
A Pap smear screens for cervical cancer. If abnormal cells are detected, another exam called a colposcopy is done to determine the extent of the disease. During colposcopy, the doctor looks more closely at the cervix using a lighted magnifying device. Abnormal-appearing areas are biopsied, which means a tissue sample is removed for analysis in a laboratory. If cancerous cells are detected and diagnosed early, they can be removed before cancer develops.
Women should start having a Pap smear at the age of 21. Routine HPV testing is not recommended until age 30 because HPV infections in younger women usually don’t stay active very long. Women of any age should have an HPV test when their Pap smear results are unclear.
In terms of prevention, the HPV vaccine can help prevent HPV infections. The vaccine protects against the most common types of HPV that are known to cause 70 percent of cervical cancers. There are other types of high-risk strains of HPV the vaccine does not protect against. The vaccine is most effective for females who have not yet been exposed to HPV through sexual contact and, therefore, is recommended for girls and young women between the ages of nine and 26. It’s important to understand the HPV vaccine is not a cure for existing HPV infections. Thus, women should have a regular Pap smear, and, if age 30 or older, the HPV test— regardless of whether they’ve received an HPV vaccination.
Now that you’re armed with this knowledge, it’s time to the time to take charge of your cervical health. Ask your OB/GYN about the tests and testing schedule that are best for you.