Cervical health is not something that most women think about until they go to their yearly gynecological checkup or when they think something is wrong ” “down there.” January was designated as Cervical Health Awareness Month to alert women to the issues of the cervix, HPV and cervical cancer.
Functions of the Cervix
- The cervix allows menstrual fluid to pass.
- Promotes fertility.
- Protects the uterus.
- Takes care of the upper reproductive tract.
- Keeps infections and pathogens away from developing fetuses.
- The cervix plays a momentous role in women”s sexual pleasure.
Threats to the Cervix
- HPV or the Genital human papillomavirus. This is the most common sexually transmitted infection. There are over 40 types of HPV that can infect the genital areas of both males and females. HPV can cause genital warts and some cancers. Usually HPV leaves the body on its own, or the immune system attacks the virus before it causes health problems. Note that HPV is not herpes or HIV.
- Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) pose a risk to cervical health. Chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes and HIV are only a few infections that can disrupt your long-term reproductive health.
- Cervical cancer occurs in the cells of the lower part of the uterus that connects to your vagina. You may not experience cervical cancer symptoms in the early stages, but as the disease progresses watch out for these following symptoms.
- Vaginal bleeding that is abnormal.
- Watery or bloody vaginal discharge that may have a bad odor.
- Pain in the pelvis during or after intercourse.
The types of cervical cancer to be aware of include squamous cell carcinomas or the cells that line the outer portion of your cervix and lead into the vagina. Adenocarcinomas occur in the cells lining the cervical canal. There are also other rare cancers that transpire in the cells in the cervix.
You are at high risk of cervical cancer if you have many sexual partners, engage in early sexual activity, and have multiple STIs. Those women who have a weak immune system plus HPV infection place at high risk for developing cervical cancers. Stop smoking if you and your doctor suspect that you have an HPV infection. Smoking and HPV work together to cause cervical cancers.
Prevention and Health Practices
You can prevent cervical problems by screening for cervical cancer and precancerous changes at age 21 and beyond. Tests include:
- Pap test. Your doctor will brush and scrape cells from your cervix or the narrow neck of the uterus and send the these cells to a lab to be tested and examined. Pap tests detect abnormal cells in the cervix and can show dysplasia that can increase your risk of cancer.
- HPV DNA test should be done if you are 30 or older. This will determine if you are infected with HPV leading to cervical cancers. The HPV DNA test includes collecting cells from the cervix and being sent to a lab for testing.
- Further testing includes colposcopy or a doctor using a colposcope to examine your cervix for diseased cells. A biopsy may be taken and sent to a lab for further diagnosis.
- Conization or removing a cone-shaped area of cervical cells is done to go deeper into the cervical cells for testing. A scalpel, laser or electrified wire loop is used to remove tissue.
- Avoid cervical issues by waiting to have sex until you are older than your teenage years. Limit your number of sexual partners and do avoid having sex with someone who has had many sexual partners over their lifetime. HPV can hide inside cervical cells for years.
- Men are also at risk. If a man has a large number of sexual partners and has been circumcised he must asked to be screened for HPV.
- Be vaccinated for HPV. You will need a series of three injections over a six month period to protect against infections. These vaccines tend to prevent pre-cancers of the cervix. Vaccines will only prevent an infection; if you have HPV, you will not be ” “cured” with any type of vaccination.
The best protection and help for cervical health is to have regular checkups and pap smears. Even if you have had the HPV vaccine you will not be complete protected against all cancers or diseases caused by HPV. Maintain your cervical health by 1) checkups and screening, 2) stop smoking; 3) limit your sexual partners, 4) maintain and use good hygiene practices.