Let's Talk About Cervical Health
What is HPV?
Just like with any virus, HPV has several different strains -- up to 150. Most of these strains are “harmless” in the short term. They may cause uncomfortable symptoms like genital warts, but there are prescription medications that can be used to treat these symptoms. In some cases, someone with HPV might be asymptomatic, meaning they don’t show any symptoms on the surface. Even in these cases, the infection can still be transmitted via vaginal, anal, or oral sex, and even close skin-to-skin contact (typically during sex).🚫
Now, we use the term “harmless” with caution. In many cases, HPV will go away on its own. There aren’t any drugs to directly eliminate the virus from the body. However, in cases where the virus does not go away, there is a high chance for it to develop into cancer.
Of the approximately 150 strains of HPV, about 40 of them are known to be cancer-causing. This mainly refers to cancer of the cervix, but it can also be cancers of the throat, mouth, rectum, and vagina.
So, how do you protect yourself?❓
Most people aren’t diagnosed with cervical cancer before their 40s or 50s. However, the precautions you take in your early adolescence can determine the health of your cervix, and your overall risk of getting cervical cancer.
Tip #1: Get the HPV vaccine. 💉
The HPV vaccine reduces your risk of developing cervical cancer by 87%. It protects against most HPV strains.
When should you get vaccinated?
The CDC recommends that the HPV vaccine is administered around the age of 11-12 years old. The vaccine is given in two doses, which are about 6-12 months apart. The reason why this age is recommended is so that you have the vaccine before you enage in any sexual activity. If you’re older than 15 years old, you might need three doses of the vaccine to make sure it’s fully effective.
It used to be said that if you’re older than 26 years old, it’s not recommended for you to get the vaccine. This was because it was thought that the vaccine is only effective before exposure to an HPV strain. However, new studies have shown that the vaccine can have a protective effect up to 45 years old, even if you have been exposed to HPV already. 🙌
Tip #2: Get your Pap smears done on time. 👩⚕️
We get it, Pap smears can be DAUNTING. No one wants to have a stranger stick a big metal object* in you.🥴 However, Pap smears are the best way to collect samples for cervical cancer testing. If your test is positive for cancerous or abnormal cells in general, you can address the issue early on.
*By the way, the big metal object is called a speculum. It helps the doctor or nurse look clearly into your vagina and collect cells.
Typically, it’s recommended that you get a Pap smear once every 1-3 years starting at age 21. Some people might require more frequent testing. For example, those who have tested positive for cancerous cervical cells in a previous pap smear, people with weakened immune systems, and those living with HIV should get tested more often at the doctor’s discretion.
What happens if your pap smear is positive for abnormal cells?
Abnormal cells aren’t always cancerous cells. Sometimes, changes in cervical cells may be brought upon by bacterial or yeast infections, general inflammation, and/or non-cancerous growths like cysts.
In the case that it could be cancerous, the doctor will likely order more testing like:
- Another Pap smear
- HPV test
- Colposcopy (a procedure to deeply examine the vulva, vagina, and cervix)
- Biopsy of the canal connecting the uterus to the vagina (usually done with a colposcopy)
Tip #3: Get an HPV test done (only if you’re above 30). 📅
If you’re below 30 and you’ve been vaccinated, you are typically fine with just doing Pap smears. Over the age of 30, you can do an HPV test every 5 years.
The HPV test is similar to the Pap smear. A tool is used to collect and test cervical cells. The test itself checks for the presence of HPV strains that are most likely to be cancer-causing. If you would like to, you can do a Pap smear and HPV test in the same sitting for convenience (called co-testing).
The best way to protect yourself from HPV is to get the vaccine. New guidelines show that even if you’re over 26 years old (and under 45 years old), you’re still able to get the vaccine, as it will still have some level of a protective effect.
Here are some extra steps to take to lower your risk if you’re not vaccinated:
- ❗Always use protection❗(condom, dental dam, etc.). Physical barriers can prevent the transmission of a lot of STIs in general. However, since HPV can spread from close skin-to-skin contact, this isn’t a complete solution.
- Get tested for STIs regularly. This is especially important if you have multiple sexual partners or your partners have multiple sexual partners. Since HPV can be asymptomatic, you won’t always know if you have it or if your partner has it. Therefore, the best way to protect yourself and others is to get tested.
We hope this post didn’t scare you away! We want to encourage optimal sexual health, so you can be prepared, protected, and have the best health outcomes.
If you have more questions, you can join our community on the Aavia app! There, we have conversations about periods, sex, hormonal disorders, taboo topics, etc. You can also ask questions that will be answered by your peers and our medical advisors! 💜
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