What are the risk factors for cervical cancer?

By far the most common risk factor for cervical cancer is infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV). In fact, more than 90 percent of cervical cancers are caused by HPV infection.

You can contract HPV by coming in contact with the mouth, genitals or anus of an infected person. Unfortunately, other than genital warts, there is no way of knowing whether a sexual partner has HPV.

Other risk factors for developing cervical cancer include:

  • Smoking.
  • Being exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES).
  • Using oral contraceptives for a long time.
  • Being infected with HIV.
  • Giving birth to many children (three or more).
  • Having many sexual partners.
  • Having sex at an early age.

What can you do to prevent cervical cancer?

There is no guaranteed way to prevent cancer. However, because most cervical cancers are caused by infection with HPV, you can reduce your risk for cervical cancer by using protection (such as a condom) during sex and limiting the number of sexual partners you have.

Condoms cannot provide complete protection against HPV, but they can significantly lower your risk of infection.

You can also lower your risk with the HPV vaccine. This vaccine targets the types of HPV that cause roughly 70 percent of cervical cancers. It is not meant for women who are already infected with HPV. Ask your doctor about the vaccine and whether it’s something that is safe for you to receive.

Stopping smoking may also reduce your risk for cervical cancer.

Is cervical cancer screening available?

Getting regular pelvic exams and Pap tests with your doctor can help find early signs of cervical cancer. These exams check for abnormal cells in the cervix that are precancerous. If abnormal cells are found (cervical dysplasia), you and your doctor will work together on follow-up tests and screenings to check for cancer.

During a Pap smear, your doctor inserts a lubricated instrument into the vagina to widen the opening. Then, he or she will gently scrape your cervix to collect a sample of mucus. The mucus is sent to a lab where a pathologist checks for abnormal cells or signs of cancer.

In some cases, your doctor may place the tissue sample into a special liquid before it is sent to the lab. This is known as a liquid-based cytology.

It’s important to talk to your doctor about the right time is to start regular cervical cancer screenings. How often you have screenings will depend on your risk factors, medical history, and whether you’ve had an abnormal Pap result in the past.

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