January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, which makes this a good time to learn more about cervical cancer. Early-stage cervical cancer generally produces no signs or symptoms. Indications of more advanced cervical cancer include vaginal bleeding after intercourse, between periods or after menopause; watery, bloody vaginal discharge that may be heavy and have a foul odor; and pelvic pain or pain during intercourse. It isn’t clear what causes cervical cancer, but it’s certain that HPV plays a role, along with environmental factors and lifestyle choices. Learn more about the risk factors for cervical cancer and what you can do to keep yourself healthy.
Risk factors for cervical cancer include:
- Multiple sexual partners. The greater your number of sexual partners—and the greater your partner’s number of sexual partners—the greater your chance of acquiring HPV.
- Early sexual activity. Having sex at an early age increases your risk of HPV.
- Other sexually transmitted infections. Having other STIs—such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and HIV/AIDS—increases your risk of HPV.
- A weakened immune system. You may be more likely to develop cervical cancer if your immune system is weakened by another health condition and you have HPV.
- Smoking. Smoking is associated with squamous cell cervical cancer.
- Exposure to miscarriage prevention drug. If your mother took a drug called diethylstilbestrol while pregnant in the 1950s, you may have an increased risk of a certain type of cervical cancer called clear cell adenocarcinoma.
To reduce your risk of cervical cancer:
- Ask your doctor about the HPV vaccine. Receiving a vaccination to prevent HPV infection may reduce your risk of cervical cancer and other HPV-related cancers. Ask your doctor whether an HPV vaccine is appropriate for you.
- Have routine Pap tests. Pap tests can detect precancerous conditions of the cervix, so they can be monitored or treated in order to prevent cervical cancer. Most medical organizations suggest beginning routine Pap tests at age 21 and repeating them every few years.
- Practice safe sex. Reduce your risk of cervical cancer by taking measures to prevent sexually transmitted infections, such as using a condom every time you have sex and limiting the number of sexual partners you have.
- Don’t smoke. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, talk to your doctor about strategies to help you quit.