Who really wants to talk about cervical health?
None of us really want to address this uncomfortable topic, but it is estimated that 12,000 women in the U.S. get cervical cancer every year. With those staggering statistics, it is up to us to seek the education necessary to help us make lifelong, healthy decisions.
Knowledge is power!
So… what exactly is cervical health?
Good cervical health is about understanding your risk factors and taking action to minimize them. Those risk factors include:
• Having HIV or reduced immunity
• Taking birth control pills for a long time (more than 5 years)
• Having given birth to three or more children
• HPV (Human Papillomavirus) infection
• Risky sexual behavior (multiple partners)
Good cervical health also requires yearly screenings. Those screenings include…
• Pap smear and HPV testing – as of turning 21 years old or within 3 years of beginning to have sex. The safest standard is to follow whichever comes first.
• Follow-up exams, as per doctor’s orders
• STI testing – every 6 months or every time you get a new partner
What do they check when they do a pap smear and HPV testing?
The pap smear checks for any abnormal cells in the cervix which can be an early indicator of cervical cancer. It is called dysplasia. While there is no test to check for HPV, the presence of genital warts or abnormal cells in the cervix are indicators of the presence of HPV.
What signs and symptoms should you watch for?
Various conditions of cervical health come with different signs and symptoms. Here are three of the primary conditions you should be aware of:
Cervicitis- With cervicitis, you will probably experience abnormal vaginal discharge and extra bleeding between periods. It is an indicator that you may have Gonorrhea, Chlamydia, or another STI infection that needs to be diagnosed and treated immediately.
Cervical Cancer- Cervical cancer does not have any signs in the early stages. With advanced cancer, the signs include bleeding and abnormal vaginal discharge. Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix – the lower narrow part of the uterus. It happens when the body’s cervical cells divide very fast and grow out of control.
HPV (Human Papillomavirus) – HPV does not have any signs or symptoms until it causes genital warts or changes in the cells of the cervix. Genital warts appear as a small bump or group of bumps in the genital area. They can be large or small, raised or flat or shaped like a cauliflower. They can also appear in the vagina or anus or back of the throat or base of the tongue.
When should I call the doctor? If you notice any of the symptoms listed above, you should contact your doctor.
What if I have HPV? It is estimated that 70% of men and women will come into contact with HPV. However, in 90% of these cases, the HPV virus will eliminate itself. If you have HPV, continue to follow the doctor’s orders to be tested to see if it resolves or if continued treatment is required.
Here’s the good news about cervical health trends: Doctors have reported a decrease in the number of women being diagnosed with cervical cancer and they relate this fact to the success of cervical cancer screening.
Take your health into your hands. Be proactive. Get your regular screenings.
STD/HIV Prevention Training Center at Johns Hopkins
CDC: National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, Division of STD Prevention/Genital HPV Infection – CDC Fact Sheet