The cervix is the lower part of the uterus that extends into the vagina. This is where menstrual blood exits the uterus. During labor, the cervix dilates to allow a baby to pass through the endocervical (birth) canal. Like any tissue in the body, the cervix can become inflamed for a variety of reasons.
Inflammation of the cervix is called cervicitis. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, more than half of all women will be affected by this condition at some point in their adult lives (PubMed Health, 2012).
The most common cause of this inflammation is an infection. Infections that cause cervicitis may be caused by sexual activity, but are not always. The condition is typically categorized as acute or chronic. Acute cervicitis involves a sudden onset of symptoms. Chronic cervicitis lasts for several months.
Acute cervicitis is typically caused by a sexually transmitted infection, such as:
- human papillomavirus (HPV)
It can also be caused by an infection due to other factors, such as an allergy to spermicide or condom latex, a cervical cap or diaphragm, or sensitivity to the chemicals found in tampons. Regular vaginal bacteria can also cause cervicitis.
Chronic cervicitis is common after childbirth. It may also occur during pregnancy because increased hormone levels cause increased blood flow to the cervix.
Some women are asymptomatic, but when symptoms are present, they can include:
- abnormal vaginal bleeding
- persistent gray or white vaginal discharge that may have an odor
- vaginal pain
- pain during intercourse
- a feeling of pelvic pressure
If cervicitis progresses, the cervix can become very inflamed. In some cases, it can develop an open sore. Pus-like vaginal discharge is a symptom of cervicitis of this severity.
Cervicitis caused by gonorrhea or chlamydia can move to the uterine lining and fallopian tubes, causing pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). PID causes additional pelvic pain, discharge, and fever. PID that is untreated can cause fertility problems.
If you have symptoms of cervicitis, see your doctor for an accurate diagnosis. The symptoms of cervicitis can also be signs of other vaginal conditions. Sometimes, cervicitis is discovered during a routine exam if you aren’t having any symptoms.
There are multiple ways cervicitis can be diagnosed.
For this test, your doctor will insert a gloved finger into your vagina while also applying pressure to the abdomen. This way, he or she can detect abnormalities of the pelvic organs, which include the cervix.
For this test, also called a Pap smear, your doctor will take a swab of cells from your vagina and cervix. These cells will then be tested for abnormalities.
This test is often performed only if your Pap smear detected abnormalities. For this test, also called a colposcopy, your doctor will insert a speculum into your vagina. He or she will then take a cotton swab and gently clean the vagina and cervix of mucus residue. Then, the doctor will direct a light and colposcope (a type of microscope) at your vagina to examine the area. He or she will then take tissue samples from any areas that look abnormal.
Culture of Cervical Discharge for Microscopic Examination
Your doctor may also decide to take a sample of the discharge from your cervix. He or she will then place the sample under a microscope. This test can determine if you have a yeast infection (candidiasis), bacterial vaginosis, or trichomoniasis, among other conditions.
Tests for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) may also be performed. If a specific infection is contributing to your cervicitis, the infection will be treated. This should heal the cervical inflammation.
There is no standard treatment for cervicitis. Your doctor will determine the best course for you based on several factors, including your overall health, your medical history, the severity of your symptoms, and the extent of the inflammation.
Commonly used treatments include:
- antibiotics to kill any infections
- watchful waiting, especially after childbirth
- cryosurgery or silver nitrate in severe cases when there is damage to cervical cells (Cryosurgery involves using freezing temperatures to freeze abnormal cells in the cervix, which then destroys them. Silver nitrate may also be used to destroy abnormal cells.)
When the cause of your cervicitis is determined, it can be treated. Without treatment, however, cervicitis can last for years, causing painful intercourse and worsening symptoms.
There are ways to reduce your risk of developing cervicitis. Abstaining from sexual intercourse will protect you from cervicitis caused by an STI. Reduce your risk of contracting an STI by using a condom every time you have sexual intercourse.
Avoiding chemical solutions, such as douches and scented tampons, can reduce your risk of an allergic reaction. If you insert anything into your vagina, such as a tampon or diaphragm, follow the directions for when to remove it and how to clean it.