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Cervical Cancer: Prevention

How can cervical cancer be prevented?

Cervical cancer most often starts with precancer cell changes. You can take steps to help prevent these changes that lead to cervical cancer. And if you get regular screening tests, the changes can be found and treated before cervical cancer develops.

Preventing precancer 

To help prevent the cervical cell changes that can lead to cancer, make sure to:

  • Not get infected with HPV. The most important risk factor for cervical cancer is having certain types of the human papillomavirus (HPV). This is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. More than 150 types of HPV have been found. Some high-risk types of HPV are linked to cervical cancer, as well as some other kinds of cancer. HPV is most often spread through vaginal, oral, or anal sex with a person who has the virus. It can also be spread through skin-to-skin contact. Genital warts may not always be present or seen. So you can’t tell just by looking if a person has genital HPV. You may not know you have HPV because you may not have any symptoms.

  • Get vaccinated. The HPV vaccine can protect against certain types of HPV infection. The vaccine only works if given before an infection with HPV. So the vaccine should be given before a person becomes sexually active. Parents should get their children vaccinated at an early enough age that they have not been exposed to these viruses. Current recommendations are for girls and boys ages 9 to 14 to be vaccinated using a 2-dose schedule. If the vaccine is given from ages 15 to 26, a 3-dose schedule should be used. The FDA has recently approved the vaccine for adults ages 27 to 45. Talk with you healthcare provider to see if it's right for you. The HPV vaccine is fairly new, so experts don't know how long it protects you. Studies so far have shown that it works for at least 10 years. No vaccine gives full protection against all cancer-causing types of HPV. It’s still important to get routine Pap and HPV tests.

  • Use condoms. Condoms can protect you from HPV exposure. They need to be used correctly and every time you have sex. The HPV virus can still be spread through skin-to-skin contact with any infected part of the body. This includes the skin in the genital area that can’t be covered by a condom. Condoms do help prevent chlamydia infection. Chlamydia has been linked to a higher risk for cervical cancer. 

  • Not smoke. Smoking has been linked to cervical precancer and cancer.

Finding precancer lesions

A Pap test can find precancer cells of the cervix before they become cancer. Having regular Pap tests gives you a better chance of preventing cancer. In fact, most cases of cervical cancer are found in women who haven't had regular or any screening tests.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force notes that all women should get regular Pap tests starting at age 21. These recommendations say that:

  • Women between ages 25 and 65 should have an HPV test every 5 years. Or they may have a combination HPV and Pap test done every 5 years. Or they may have a Pap test alone every 3 years.

  • Women older than 65 who have had regular screening with normal results shouldn't be screened for cervical cancer. Once screening is stopped, it shouldn't be started again.

  • Women who have an increased risk for cervical cancer because of a weak immune system or other risk factors may need screening more often. Talk with your healthcare provider about screening. 

  • A woman who has had a hysterectomy with removal of the cervix for reasons not related to cervical cancer and who has no history of cervical cancer or serious precancer shouldn't be screened.  

  • A woman who has been vaccinated against HPV should follow the screening advice for her age group.

The American Cancer Society changed their recommendations in 2020 from those noted above. They advise that screening not start until age 25, and that the preferred screening method should be HPV testing every 5 years until age 65. Getting a Pap test every 3 years is considered acceptable when HPV testing isn't available

Online Medical Reviewer: Donna Freeborn PhD CNM FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: Howard Goodman MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Louise Cunningham RN BSN
Date Last Reviewed: 3/1/2021
© 2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.