Cervical cancer rarely causes symptoms in the early stages. When it does cause symptoms, they’re generally mild and easy to mistake for the symptoms of other, less serious, conditions. This means it’s very difficult to detect cervical cancer based on symptoms, particularly in its early stages.

Fortunately, cervical cancer screenings can detect cervical cancer when it’s still precancerous. Cervical cancer found at this stage is highly treatable, and the outlook is very positive.

Keep reading to learn about recommended screening guidelines for cervical cancer and what steps you can take to prevent cervical cancer.

Just like most other types of cancer, you’ll have more treatment options and a better outlook if cervical cancer is found early.

Later stages of cervical cancer can be complex and difficult to treat. Survival odds decrease when cervical cancer goes undetected and has the opportunity to spread beyond your cervix.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to detect cervical cancer in the early stages. Here are medically recommended early detection strategies:

Get routine screening for cervical cancer

Screenings are the best way to detect cervical cancer in its early stages. Early stages of cervical cancer don’t often cause symptoms or prompt doctor visits. Screenings can find cervical cancer long before symptoms begin.

There are two primary screenings for cervical cancer:

  • Pap smears. A Pap smear tests for cervical cancer and precancerous changes that could become cancer.
  • HPV tests. HPV tests look for the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is the number-one risk factor for cervical cancer.

The American Cancer Society recommends regular screenings if you’re between the ages of 25 and 65. Guidelines can be found in the table below.

Age group and risk categoriesScreening recommendations
Between 25 and 65 and at standard risk for cervical cancerReceive an HPV test every 5 years, either along with a Pap smear or on its own. If HPV testing is not available, have a Pap smear every 3 years.
Over 65 and have never had cervical cancer or abnormal Pap smear resultsStop getting screened.
Over 65 and have a history of precancerous pap smear results.Continue getting screened regularly.
Between 25 and 65 and have had a total hysterectomy including the removal of your cervix.Stop getting screened unless the procedure was done to treat cervical cancer.
Between 25 and 65 and had a hysterectomy that did not include the removal of your cervix.Continue to follow standard guidelines.
Between 25 and 65 and have had children.Continue to follow standard guidelines.
Between 25 and 65 and have been vaccinated for HPV.Continue to follow standard guidelines.
Between 25 and 65 and are part of a high-risk group, including people with compromised immune systems.Follow the recommendations of your healthcare team.

Know your risk for cervical cancer

Knowing your risk for cervical cancer can help you detect cervical cancer early.

The biggest single risk factor for cervical cancer is HPV. HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI). You can lower your risk for HPV by practicing safe sex. This means using protection for all sexual activity and getting regularly tested for STIs. Another STI, chlamydia, is also linked to a higher risk for HPV.

Risk factors for cervical cancer that aren’t STIs include:

Cervical cancer is also more common in low-income communities that don’t have access to preventive healthcare and sexual education, including cervical cancer screenings, STI testing, condoms, and safe sex resources.

In the United States, this lack of access to healthcare services disproportionately affects Black, Hispanic, and Native American women. As a result, these groups are at a higher risk for cervical cancer.

Know the symptoms of cervical cancer

It’s rare for the early stages of cervical cancer to cause symptoms. However, it’s still important to know the symptoms of cervical cancer. These symptoms don’t always mean cervical cancer, but it’s still best to contact a medical professional if you experience them.

Early symptoms of cervical cancer include:

  • pain during sex
  • pain in your pelvic region
  • vaginal bleeding that is not standard for you — this could mean heavier menstrual bleeding, longer menstrual spotting between periods, or bleeding after sex
  • vaginal discharge that is not standard for you

Since HPV is the biggest risk factor for cervical cancer, the HPV vaccine is the best way to prevent cervical cancer. The HPV vaccine protects you from the strands of HPV that are most commonly linked to cervical cancer. It doesn’t cure HPV if you already have it.

It’s recommended that you get the HPV vaccine when you’re between the ages of 11 and 14. However, anyone under the age of 26 is highly encouraged to get the vaccine. You can read more about recommended ages and dosing schedules in the table below.

AgeIdeal window Dosing schedule
9 to 14Best to start at 11 or 12Two shots 6 months apart
15 to 26Highly recommendedThree shots. The second shot given 2 months after the first. The third shot given 6 months after the second.
9 to 26 and immunocompromisedHighly recommended Three shots. The second shot given 2 months after the first. The third shot given 6 months after the second.
Over 26Case-specific. Might be a good idea for some people. Talk to a medical professional

Should I continue to get screening if I’ve had a hysterectomy?

It depends. You should continue to get screened if your hysterectomy was done as treatment for cervical cancer. You should also continue to get screened if your cervix wasn’t removed during your hysterectomy.

If your cervix was removed, and if your hysterectomy was for a reason other than the treatment of cervical cancer, you do not need to continue cervical cancer screenings.

Should I continue to get screened if I’ve had the HPV vaccine?

Yes. It’s very important to continue getting‌ screened for cervical cancer, even if you’ve had the HPV vaccine.

Is the HPV vaccine safe for everyone?

The HPV vaccine is safe and effective. However, The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises against the vaccine if you:

  • have a history of immediate hypersensitivity to yeast (people with minor yeast allergies, such as a skin rash, should not defer a vaccination)
  • are currently pregnant
  • have a moderate to severe acute illness or upper respiratory infection (vaccination should be deferred until symptoms improve)*

Having diarrhea or a mild upper respiratory tract infection with or without fever is not a reason to defer vaccination.

If you’re pregnant or have an infection, you can wait and get the HPV vaccine at a later time. If you’re allergic to yeast, talk to your doctor about your allergy, the HPV vaccine, and your options.

Are there low or no-cost cervical cancer screening options available?

Yes. You have several options for low- and no-cost screening. You can check out:

  • The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Detection Program. The CDC offers The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Detection Program. You can get free screenings through this program if you meet its income requirements.
  • Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood is a great resource for reproductive and sexual health. They offer STI testing and Pap smears at low or no cost through sliding-scale payment programs. Some locations can also help you sign up for health insurance programs such as Medicaid.
  • Federally Qualified Health Centers. Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) are government-funded health clinics located throughout the country. They offer a variety of free or low-cost services including cancer screenings and STI tests. You can connect with your local FQHC to ask about available services.

Early detection of cervical cancer can significantly improve your treatment outlook. Cervical cancer is unlikely to cause symptoms in the early stages. That’s why screenings are so important.

Pap smears and HPV tests are both used as screenings for cervical cancer. Following screening guidelines for your age and risk group can help detect cancer in the precancer stage when it is very treatable.

Talk to a medical professional about your personal risk for cervical cancer. Consider getting an HPV vaccine if you haven’t received one in the past, especially if you’re under 26.

The HPV vaccine is the number-one way to lower your overall risk of cervical cancer.