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Cervical cancer - screening and prevention
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV (human papilloma virus). HPV is a common virus that is spread through sexual intercourse and other contact.
Male and female condoms cannot fully protect you because the virus or warts can be on the skin. Nonetheless, condoms reduce your risk, and you should still use them at all times. HPV can be passed from person to person even when there are no visible warts or other symptoms.
To further reduce the risk of cervical cancer, women should limit the number of their sexual partners and avoid partners who participate in high-risk sexual activities.
If you smoke, quit. Cigarette smoking is associated with an increased risk of cervical cancer.
Vaccines to Prevent Cervical Cancer
Two vaccines are available to protect against four of the HPV types that cause most cervical cancer in women. The vaccine is given as a series of three shots. It is recommended for girls and women ages 9 - 26.
It is best for girls to receive the vaccine by age 11 or before becoming sexually active. However, even girls and younger women who have already been sexually active can still gain protection from the HPV vaccine.
Cervical cancer usually develops very slowly. It starts as a precancerous condition called dysplasia. This precancerous condition can be detected by a Pap smear and is 100% treatable.
That is why it is so important for women to get regular Pap smears. Most women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer today have not had regular Pap smears or they have not followed up on abnormal Pap smear results.
Screening should start at age 21. After the first test:
- Woman should have a Pap smear ever 2 years to check for cervical cancer.
- If you are over age 30 or your Pap smears have been negative three times in a row, your doctor may tell you that you need a Pap smear only every 3 years.
- If you or your sexual partner have other new partners, you should have a Pap smear every 2 years.
- After age 65 - 70, most women can stop having Pap smears as long as they have had three negative tests within the past 10 years.
- If you have a new sexual partner after age 65, you should begin having Pap smear screening again.
Smith RA, Cokkinides V, Brooks D, Saslow D, Brawley OW. Cancer screening in the United States, 2010: a review of current American Cancer Society guidelines and issues in cancer screening. CA Cancer J Clin. 2010 Mar-Apr;60(2):99-119.
Pham H, Geraci SA, Burton MJ; CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. Adult immunizations: update on recommendations. Am J Med. 2011 Aug;124(8):698-701.
Kahn JA. HPV vaccination for the prevention of cervical intraepithelial neoplasia. N Engl J Med. 2009 Jul 16;361(3):271-8.
Reviewed By: Susan Storck, MD, FACOG, Chief, Eastside Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, Bellevue, Washington; Clinical Teaching Faculty, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.