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Three Simple Ways to Protect Your Cervical Health

Not long ago, cervical cancer was once one of the most common cancers affecting women. Cases in the US decreased significantly with the introduction of Pap testing and even more so with the vaccination and testing of human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection that can cause cervical cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 13,170 new cases of invasive cervical cancer will be diagnosed by doctors in 2019. Preventive care can lead to early detection by incorporating these three simple practices into your wellness routine:

1. Schedule Your Annual Well-Woman Exam
Don’t ignore that appointment reminder email! A very easy way to be screened for cervical cancer is to determine your needs by talking with your provider during your annual well-woman exam. Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by a sexually transmitted infection called human papillomavirus (HPV), but other factors increase your risk of cervical cancer including:

     • Smoking
     • Chlamydia infection 
     • Poor diet and obesity
     • Weakened immune system
     • A family history of cervical cancer
     • Having multiple full-term pregnancies

Based on your age and health needs, certain tests and vaccinations may not be needed every year to ensure your overall health. It is important to talk with your provider about when you are due for them and to address any concerns you have. Conversations like these lead to early detection and maintaining your healthiest self. These appointments also provide an opportunity to ask questions or inform your doctor of pain, discomfort or issues that are important to raise. 

Read more about the importance of scheduling a well-woman exam, which covers overall gynecologic health, family planning and to refill your birth control prescription or discuss new contraceptive options that fit your lifestyle and needs best. Forgot to schedule your appointment? You can request one with a few clicks online.

2.    Be Sure to Have a Pap Test
One of the primary screening methods for cervical cancer is to have a routine Pap test. Often completed in conjunction with your in-office pelvic exam, the test collects a sample of cervical cells and is then reviewed for abnormal or pre-cancerous changes in the cells of your cervix. It is very effective in detecting cervical cancer in the early stages before it spreads to other parts of the body. 

Not sure when to get one? the American Cancer Society recommends testing guidelines by age and other factors that your provider follows, but generally, encourages pap tests:

     • begin for women at age 21 and to continue testing every 3 years up to age 29;
     • women that are 30 to 65 are recommended to have a Pap test every 5 years if co-testing with HPV, 
       or every 3 years with just a Pap test;
     • women over 65 that have not had any serious pre-cancers in the last 30 years or have been
       regularly screened in the previous 10 years may not need to be screened, based on their providers' 
       recommendation.

If you’ve had irregular pap tests, you may still need a Pap test annually or more frequently. Also, if you have been vaccinated against HPV, you should still follow the guidelines above, unless otherwise directed by your physician. 

3.    Get tested and vaccinated against HPV
There can be a stigma associated with having an STI, but this one is very common and preventable. According to the Centers for Disease Control about one in four adults, mostly in their late teens and early 20s in the US are infected with HPV, 90% of which are preventable through vaccination. It encompasses over 150 related viruses, 40 of which can be spread through sexual contact. The infection will often have no symptoms and dissipate on its own. However, it can present itself through genital warts or develop into cancer. Because of its effectiveness, vaccinating and testing for HPV are currently the best methods of prevention against HPV and screening for HPV-associated cervical cancer. 

The series of the HPV vaccine is recommended for boys and girls who are 11 or 12 years old, but girls can be started as early as age 9, up through, and including young women that are 26. Vaccination has recently also been expanded to include older adults to provide protection against HPV strains that they have not yet been exposed to. If you have more questions about the vaccine, you can talk with your physician or read more about HPV vaccine facts here.

The other component of a cervical cancer screening includes an HPV DNA test to check for the HPV virus, which can cause cancerous cell changes.  The HPV/Pap co-test are completed at the same time and is recommended to be completed every five years for women that are between 30 to 65 years old.
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