5 things every woman should know about cervical cancer and HPV

Women's Health

by Adrianne Browning, MD

Aug 28, 2018

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is one of the few cancers known to be caused by a virus known as human papilloma virus (HPV). There are about 200 types of HPV, including low-risk strains that can cause warts and high-risk strains that can cause cervical cancer.

The types of HPV that can lead to cervical cancer are contracted through sexual activity. The virus is taken up by cells and then reproduces. Cancer often takes years, even decades, to develop after a person gets HPV.

Should I be worried about HPV?

HPV is common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 79 million Americans are infected with HPV. HPV is so common that almost every sexually active person will get HPV at some point — if they have not had the vaccine.

The good news is that within two years of contracting an infection, 90 percent of women will suppress the infection and stop producing the virus.  So, most of the time, HPV is nothing to worry about. But it’s important to visit your OB/GYN regularly for screenings.

Fortunately, there is an HPV vaccination that can help protect you from HPV infections that cause cancer, including cervical cancer. The vaccine is recommended for preteen girls and boys at age 11 or 12 years, but women can get the HPV vaccine until age 27 and men until age 22.

What are the risk factors for cervical cancer?

Certain conditions such as immune suppression, smoking and other sexually transmitted infections can prevent your immune system from eradicating an HPV virus. When women are unable to suppress the virus, it can cause the cervical cells to grow out of control and lead to premalignant changes. If left unchecked, this can ultimately lead to cervical cancer.

What are the signs?

The first sign of cervical cancer is often bleeding after intercourse. This occurs because, unlike normal cervical tissue, the abnormal cancerous cells are easily traumatized. As it progresses, cervical cancer can cause symptoms such as pelvic pain or back pain as it spreads to compress the flow of urine from the kidneys.

These are the most common symptoms you should watch for:

  • Bleeding between periods or after sexual intercourse.
  • Bleeding in post-menopausal women.
  • Discomfort during sexual intercourse.
  • Foul smelling vaginal discharge.
  • Pelvic pain.

How can I prevent cervical cancer?

Regular screening is the best way to prevent cervical cancer. Regular pap smears and HPV testing can identify abnormal cells before they invade the body, and they can be removed with a simple excision.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends women have a pap smear every three years between age 21 and age 65. This can be spaced out to every five years after 30 years of age if HPV testing shows that there is no shedding of high-risk HPV virus.

A common misconception among women is that a pap smear is the same as an annual exam. An annual exam is important to screen for and prevent a number of illnesses, but pap smears are specifically used to screen for cervical cancer. Both are critical in ensuring you stay healthy.

Most sexually active women will be exposed to HPV during their lifetimes, and most will suppress the infection within two years. But don’t take chances with cervical cancer — be sure to visit your OB/GYN regularly and discuss your concerns.

Don’t have an OB/GYN? Find one near you.

About the Author

Adrianne Browning, MD, is an obstetrician/gynecologist on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center, part of Baylor Scott & White Health, in Dallas.

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