The cervix is the narrow lower portion of the uterus that opens into the vagina. Human papillomavirus (HPV) causes almost all cases of cervical cancer, which is a common sexually transmitted infection. Estimates show that about 14 million new infections occur every year.
Most people who have HPV infections never experience any symptoms, and many cases go away without treatment. However, certain strains of the virus can infect cells and cause problems such as genital warts or cancer.
Cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of cancer death for American women, but it’s now considered the easiest female cancer to prevent. Regular Pap tests, HPV vaccines, and HPV testing have made it easier to prevent cervical cancer. Knowing the symptoms of cervical cancer can also lead to early detection and quicker treatment.
People rarely have symptoms of cervical cancer in its early stages. This is why it’s so important to get a regular Pap test to ensure early detection and treatment of precancerous lesions. The symptoms typically only appear when the cancer cells grow through the top layer of cervical tissue into the tissue below it. This occurs when the precancerous cells are left untreated and progress to invasive cervical cancer.
At this point, people sometimes mistake common symptoms as being benign, such as irregular vaginal bleeding and vaginal discharge.
Irregular vaginal bleeding is the most common symptom of invasive cervical cancer. The bleeding may occur between menstrual periods or after sex. Sometimes, it shows as blood-streaked vaginal discharge, which often gets dismissed as spotting.
Vaginal bleeding can also occur in postmenopausal women, who no longer have menstrual periods. This is never normal and could be a warning sign of cervical cancer or other serious problem. You should go to the doctor if this happens.
Along with bleeding, many people also begin to experience unusual vaginal discharge. The discharge may be:
- foul smelling
- tinged with blood
While bleeding and discharge may be early signs of cervical cancer, more severe symptoms will develop in later stages. Symptoms of advanced cervical cancer can include:
HPV is transmitted through sexual contact. Transmission occurs when the skin or mucous membranes of an infected person makes physical contact with the skin or mucous membrane of a person who isn’t infected.
In most cases, the infection doesn’t cause symptoms, which makes it easy to unknowingly transfer the virus to another person.
Over 40 different strains of HPV are transmitted sexually, but only a few strains of the virus produce visible symptoms. For example, strains 6 and 11 cause genital warts but not cancer. Several different strains of HPV can cause cancer. However, just two strains, strains 16 and 18, are responsible for most cases of HPV-related cancer.
Knowing the warning signs as well as your risks increases your chances of early detection of cervical cancer and HPV before it progresses. Risk factors for cervical cancer include:
- high-risk HPV infection
- long-term oral use of birth control pills
- a weakened immune system
- mother’s use of diethylstilbestrol during pregnancy
Risk factors for HPV include:
- a high number of sexual partners
- first sexual intercourse at a young age
- a weakened immune system
Vaccination against HPV is one of the best preventive measures, in addition to regular Pap tests to protect against cervical cancer.
The Pap test, or smear, is one of the most reliable cancer-screening tests available. These tests can detect abnormal cells and precancerous changes on the cervix. Early detection allows these abnormal cells and changes to be treated before they develop into cancer.
Your doctor can perform a Pap smear during a routine pelvic exam. It involves swabbing the cervix to collect cells for examination under a microscope.
Doctors may also do an HPV test the same time they do a pap test. This involves swabbing the cervix, then examining the cells for evidence for HPV DNA.
Vaccination against HPV is advised for females ages 9 to 26 for prevention of HPV infection, cervical cancer, as well as genital warts. It’s only effective when given to people before they become infected with the virus. This is why it’s recommended that a person gets it before they’re sexually active.
Gardasil is one such vaccine, and it guards against the two most common high-risk types of HPV, strain 16 and 18. These two strains are responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancers. It also guards against strain 6 and 1, which cause 90 percent of genital warts.
Because men can carry HPV, they should also talk to their doctors about being vaccinated. According to the CDC, preteen boys and girls should be vaccinated at age 11 or 12. They get the vaccine in a series of three shots over an eight-month period. Young women can get the vaccine through age 26 and young men through age 21 if they haven’t already been exposed to HPV.