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Cervical cancer - screening and prevention

Cervical cancer is a cancer that starts in the cervix. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus (womb) that opens at the top of the vagina.

There is a lot you can do to decrease your chance of having cervical cancer. Also, your health care provider can do tests to find early changes that may lead to cancer, or to find cervical cancer in the early stages.

Lifestyle and Safer Sex Habits

Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV (human papilloma virus).

  • HPV is a common virus that spreads through sexual contact.
  • Certain types of HPV are more likely to lead to cervical cancer. These are called high-risk types of HPV.
  • Other types of HPV cause genital warts.

HPV can be passed from person to person even when there are no visible warts or other symptoms.

Vaccines to Prevent Cervical Cancer

A vaccine is available to protect against the HPV types that cause most cervical cancer in women. The vaccine is:

  • Recommended for girls and women ages 9 through 26.
  • Given as 2 shots in girls ages 9 through 14, and as 3 shots in teens older than 14 years.
  • Best for girls to get by age 11 or before becoming sexually active. However, girls and younger women who are already sexually active can still be protected by the vaccine if they've never been infected.

These safer sex practices can also help reduce your risk of getting HPV and cervical cancer:

  • Always use condoms. But be aware that condoms cannot fully protect you. This is because the virus or warts can also be on the nearby skin.
  • Have only one sexual partner, whom you know is infection-free.
  • Limit the number of sexual partners you have over time.
  • DO NOT get involved with partners who take part in high-risk sexual activities.
  • DO NOT smoke. Cigarette smoking increases the risk of getting cervical cancer.

Pap Smears

Cervical cancer often develops slowly. It starts as precancerous changes called dysplasia. Dysplasia can be detected by a medical test called a Pap smear.

Dysplasia is fully treatable. That is why it is important for women to get regular Pap smears, so that precancerous cells can be removed before they can become cancer.

Pap smear screening should start at age 21. After the first test:

  • Women ages 21 through 29 should have a Pap smear every 3 years. HPV testing is not recommended for this age group.
  • Women ages 30 through 65 should be screened with either a Pap smear every 3 years or the HPV test every 5 years.
  • If you or your sexual partner has other new partners, you should have a Pap smear every 3 years.
  • Women ages 65 through 70 can stop having Pap smears as long as they have had 3 normal tests within the past 10 years.
  • Women who have been treated for precancer (cervical dysplasia) should continue to have Pap smears for 20 years after treatment or until age 65, whichever is longer.

Talk with your provider about how often you should have a Pap smear or HPV test.

Alternative Names

Cancer cervix - screening; HPV - cervical cancer screening; Dysplasia - cervical cancer screening; Cervical cancer - HPV vaccine

Images

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Human papillomavirus (HPV). Clinician factsheets and guidance. www.cdc.gov/hpv/hcp/clinician-factsheet.html. Updated December 7, 2017. Accessed December 11, 2017.

Salcedo MP, Baker ES, Schmeler KM. Intraepithelial neoplasia of the lower genital tract (cervix, vagina, vulva): etiology, screening, diagnosis, management. In: Lobo RA, Gershenson DM, Lentz GM, Valea FA, eds. Comprehensive Gynecology. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:chap 28.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Committee on Adolescent Health Care, Immunization Expert Work Group. Committee Opinion Number 704, June 2017. www.acog.org/Resources-And-Publications/Committee-Opinions/Committee-on-Adolescent-Health-Care/Human-Papillomavirus-Vaccination. Accessed December 11, 2017.

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force website. Draft evidence review for cervical cancer: screening, October 2017. www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/Page/Document/draft-evidence-review/cervical-cancer-screening2. Accessed December 11, 2017.

Review Date 9/28/2017

Updated by: John D. Jacobson, MD, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Loma Linda University School of Medicine, Loma Linda Center for Fertility, Loma Linda, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.