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Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer among women. It is most often caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted virus. HPV is actually a group term used for more than 100 viruses.

HPV can go away on its own without causing any issues. In other cases, it can cause symptoms like genital warts or benign growths, as well as cervical cancer in people with a cervix.

This article will look at the connection between HPV, sex, and cervical cancer. It will also discuss ways to prevent cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer is cancer that develops on the cervix, or the lower end of the uterus near the vaginal canal. HPV is believed to cause most cervical cancers.

HPV is most commonly transmitted during sexual intercourse and sexual activities. Therefore, people who have or have had sex are at risk for developing cervical cancer.

People who have had a chlamydia infection also may have a higher risk of cervical cancer. That’s because this STI may encourage the growth of HPV. That may lead to a quicker development of cervical cancer.

Some risk factors for cervical cancer aren’t related to sex. For example, women who smoke are twice as likely as non-smokers to develop cervical cancer. Research suggests byproducts of the tobacco product can damage the DNA of cervical cells.

Research has also shown that among women with HPV infections, those who smoke have a much higher HPV viral load on the cervix. This increases the risk of cervical cancer.

People with a weakened immune system may also have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer. Causes of a weakened immune system can include:

Having a compromised immune system can impact your body’s ability to fight off viruses, cancer cells, and tumor growth.

Summary

Human papillomavirus (HPV) — a sexually transmitted virus — is thought to cause most cases of cervical cancer. But there are other factors that may increase your risk, such as smoking, a chlamydia infection, and a weakened immune system.

Yes, even if you don’t have sex, you could still be at risk of cervical cancer.

HPV cells can live in more areas of the body than the genitals. They are sometimes present in the anus, mouth, and throat. Skin-to-skin contact, such as during oral sex, can transmit the virus. Penetrative sex is not the only way to transmit it.

If you are not having sex now but have had sex in the past, you are still at risk for developing cervical cancer from HPV.

HPV does not always cause obvious symptoms like warts. It can persist in the body for years and then develop into abnormal cells on the cervix later. These abnormal cells can become cancerous.

Lastly, people who have never had any type of sexual intercourse or contact, including vaginal, oral, or anal sex, are unlikely to have HPV. However, it is possible to transmit HPV through nonpenetrative sexual contact.

Summary

Even if you’re not having sex, the risk of cervical cancer still exists. A doctor can discuss your individual risk factors and determine the best testing plan for you.

It’s recommended that people with a cervix, regardless of sexual history, start Pap tests (also known as a Pap smear) by age 21. People younger than 21 likely do not need a Pap test. A Pap smear can also diagnose benign conditions such as infection and inflammation of the cervix.

A Pap smear is a quick, non-invasive test that doesn’t hurt. It only takes a few minutes to do the procedure.

During a Pap test, a healthcare professional will collect cells from your cervix. To do this, they will scrape the end of the uterus with a swab or spatula. The cells are then placed on a slide and sent to a lab for examination.

In addition to a Pap smear, an HPV test is another important screening tool for cervical cancer. This test allows your doctor to look for HPV in your cervical cells. HPV can be detected about a year after infection in the cervix.

While a Pap test can only detect abnormal cells once they have formed, an HPV test may be able to detect the infection before any precancerous cell changes have developed. This way, you and your doctor can monitor your cervix for signs of cancer development.

So, even if you’re not having sex now, if you were sexually active in the past, an HPV test would be a helpful screening tool to rule out the presence of HPV in your cervical cells.

An HPV test can be done either on its own (known as a primary HPV test) or at the same time as a Pap test (known as a co-test). Having a co-test won’t seem any different to having a normal Pap smear.

In the United States, cervical cancer screening guidelines support primary HPV testing alone or co-testing.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) cervical cancer screening guidelines are as follows:

The American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology (ASCCP) supports the use of either test for cervical cancer screening.

Women over 30 with a “normal” or “negative” Pap smear may be able to have a Pap test done every 3 years. People with an “abnormal” test result may need to have the test more frequently.

How often you should get a Pap test depends on several factors, including:

  • your Pap test results history
  • your sexual history
  • other risk factors for cervical cancer

It’s important to keep in mind that the ACS and other organizations frequently make changes to their cancer screening guidelines. That’s why it’s important to talk with your doctor about the recommended testing frequency and what’s right for you.

An HPV diagnosis does not mean you have cervical cancer. Nearly all sexually active people will contract HPV at some point in their lives, if they don’t have the HPV vaccine.

There are numerous HPV subtypes, but the two that are most commonly associated with cervical cancer are HPV 16 and 18. Together, these two HPV types account for 70 percent of cervical cancers. The HPV vaccine protects against both HPV 16 and 18.

Currently, healthcare professionals recommend an HPV vaccination at age 11 or 12. People up to age 26 may get the vaccine on their doctor’s recommendation. However, the vaccine is most effective in people who have not yet been exposed to HPV.

What’s more, the vaccine protects against more than cervical cancer. It may prevent cancer of the vulva and vagina, penis, anus, mouth, and throat.

In addition to the vaccine, taking the following steps may help reduce the risk of cervical cancer:

  • If you smoke, consider quitting. Tobacco use may lead to DNA changes in the cells of the cervix. Talk with your doctor about creating a smoking cessation plan to lower your risk of cancer.
  • Use protection. Barrier methods, like a condom, can protect against the virus.
  • Test regularly. Pap and HPV tests may find potential cancerous cells long before symptoms show up.

HPV, a common sexually transmitted virus, is believed to be the leading risk factor for cervical cancer. If you’re sexually active or have been in the past, you may have contracted HPV.

However, penetrative sex is not the only way that HPV is transmitted. It can also be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact during oral sex or other types of sexual activities.

People who have never had sexual intercourse or any type of sexual encounter are unlikely to have HPV and are at the lowest risk of developing cervical cancer.

In addition to HPV, other factors may increase the risk of cervical cancer, such as smoking, a chlamydia infection, and a weakened immune system. Talk with your doctor about your individual risk factors for cervical cancer and how often you should have a Pap or HPV test.