Access to regular screenings with Pap smears, or Pap tests, has made dying from cervical cancer more preventable in the United States. According to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, the number of deaths has declined from 2.8 to 2.3 deaths per 100,000 women from 2000 to 2015.

Screening isn’t the only way to reduce your risk of cervical cancer. Other prevention methods focus on improving your health and reducing exposure to the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV infection is responsible for most cervical cancers diagnoses.

Early-stage cervical cancer often has no symptoms. Therefore, these tests are needed to detect precancerous abnormalities and early-stage cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, treating all precancerous changes can effectively prevent all cervical cancers. However, once lesions become cancerous, they can become more difficult to treat. That’s why it is important to get routine screenings.

There are two types of screening tests that you may receive:

  • Pap smear: This test detects cellular abnormalities in the cervix. A small number of cells are scraped from the cervix and sent to the lab to be viewed under a microscope.
  • High-risk HPV (hrHPV) test: This test checks for the presence of the HPV virus, an important risk factor for cervical cancer. It can be performed at the same time as a Pap test.
  • Both types of screening tests can be performed as well. This procedure is called “co-testing.

Cervical cancer screenings can detect changes before they become problematic.

How often should you receive them?

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has recently updated its recommendations for cervical cancer screening. The frequency and type of screening can depend on your age:

Under 21 years old: Cervical cancer screening isn’t recommend

Between 21 and 29 years old: Screening by Pap smear every three years

Between 30 and 65 years old: Three screening options are available:

  • Screening by Pap smear every three years
  • Screening using hrHPV testing every five years
  • Screening using both Pap smear and hrHPV testing every five years

Over age 65: Cervical cancer screening isn’t recommended as long as you’ve received adequate prior screenings.

Additionally, if you’ve had a hysterectomy with removal of the cervix and do not have a history of high-grade precancerous lesion or cervical cancer, screening isn’t recommended.

Sometimes your doctor may request that you have more frequent cervical cancer screenings based off of your medical history. You may need to be tested more often if you have:

  • recently had an abnormal cervical cancer screening result
  • had cervical cancer in the past
  • human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
  • a weakened immune system

Abnormal results

If you have abnormal screening results, you have options. Early treatment of precancerous lesions can prevent pre-cancer from developing into cancer.

What the next steps are can depend on your specific screening results. Your doctor will use these results to make recommendations. They can include:

Watchful waiting

Some lesions may not require treatment. Your doctor may want to monitor them to see if they improve or get worse. They may recommend more frequent cervical cancer screenings.

Colposcopy

Your doctor can use a colposcopy to examine your cervix more closely using a special instrument called a colposcope. They may also take a biopsy for further testing.

Biopsy

A sample can be taken from the cervix to be tested in a lab. This is called a biopsy.

Removal of abnormal tissue

These methods can include things like cryotherapy, loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP), and laser therapy. They all work to remove abnormal cells from the cervix.

Cost reduction

Health insurance companies are required to cover Pap smears. If you have health insurance or are eligible for Medicare or Medicaid, you can receive free or low-cost Pap smears. If you don’t have insurance coverage, you can sign up at HealthCare.gov.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program also offers free or low-cost access to Pap smears. To find a screening program near you, visit the CDC’s website.

HPV causes the majority of cervical cancers. HPV viruses are divided into two groups:

  • low risk
  • high-risk

Low-risk HPVs often cause no symptoms. However, they may cause warts on the genitals, anus, and throat.

High-risk HPVs can cause cancer. In fact, just two types of high-risk HPV — HPV 16 and 18 —cause most HPV-related cancers.

There’s currently a vaccine that can protect against HPV infection. It’s called Gardasil 9. Gardasil 9 protects against nine types of HPV — seven high-risk types of HPV (including 16 and 18) and two low-risk HPV types that cause genital warts.

Who needs vaccination?

The CDC recommends that boys and girls between the ages of 11 and 12 should be vaccinated against HPV. Vaccination is most effective if it’s performed before a person starts having sex. Otherwise, there’s a strong possibility that they’ve already been exposed to HPV.

For boys and girls in the recommended age range:

  • The vaccine is given in two doses.
  • The second dose is given 6 to 12 months after the first dose.

Vaccination is also recommended for women through age 45 and men through age 21 who haven’t yet received it.

Recommended dosage guidelines state:

  • Three doses of the vaccine are given.
  • The second dose is given one to two months after the first dose.
  • The third dose is given six months after the first dose.

If you’re in this age bracket and would like to be vaccinated, speak with your doctor.

Vaccination risks

The HPV vaccine is considered to be extremely safe. Some people may experience mild side effects following vaccination. Side effects usually go away quickly on their own and can include:

  • soreness or redness at the injection site
  • fever
  • headache

People who have had a severe or life-threatening allergic reaction to the HPV vaccine or one of its components shouldn’t receive another dose. Additionally, the vaccine isn’t recommended for pregnant women or individuals who are currently sick with mild illnesses, such as a cold.

Remember, vaccination isn’t a substitute for cervical cancer screenings. There are more than 200 types of HPV. Therefore, cervical cancer screenings are still important, even if you’ve been vaccinated.

In addition to screening and vaccination, people have other options to reduce their risk of cervical cancer.

Reduce sexual risk factors

Reducing sexual risk factors reduces your chance of contracting an HPV infection. This, in turn, makes it less likely you’ll get cervical cancer. Additionally, having other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), such as HIV and chlamydia can also increase your cervical cancer risk.

Methods to reduce your chance of getting an STI include:

  • always using condoms or other barrier methods during sex
  • having fewer sexual partners

Quit smoking

If you’re a smoker, you’re more likely to develop cervical cancer. The harmful substances present in cigarette smoke can be carried through the bloodstream to other parts of your body.

The risk of cervical cancer increases based on how many cigarettes you smoke and how long you’ve been smoking. According to the American Cancer Society, women who smoke are two times as likely to develop cervical cancer compared to non-smokers.

Implement lifestyle changes

Other lifestyle factors are also associated with cervical cancer risk. Lifestyle factors can include:

  • being overweight
  • having a diet that’s low in fruits and vegetables

To help reduce your risk of cervical cancer, try: