Cervical Cancer Screening
Each year approximately 12,000 women in the U.S. get cervical cancer. While all women are at risk for cervical cancer, most cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a common infection passed from person to person during sex. At least one half of women who are sexually active will be infected by HPV at some point in their life, but only a small percentage will develop cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer generally causes few or no symptoms until it is advanced, which makes regular screening for cervical cancer important. This is done with the PAP smear. A PAP smear is done during a pelvic exam by collecting cells from the cervix which are then analyzed in a laboratory for signs of cervical cancer or pre-cancerous changes that could develop into cancer. It is also possible to do a test at the same time to detect whether a woman has HPV and is thus at higher risk of cervical cancer. Only some types of HPV increase the risk of cervical cancer, and these are the types tested for.
The recommended screening schedule for cervical cancer has recently changed. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force now recommends cervical cancer screening via a PAP smear every three years for women aged 21-65. An alternate option for women aged 30-65 is a PAP smear with HPV testing every 5 years.
In addition to HPV, other risk factors for cervical cancer include smoking, using birth control pills for 5 years or more, having given birth to three or more children, and HIV. Cervical cancer risk can be reduced by getting an HPV vaccine, using condoms during sex to reduce the transmission of HPV and HIV, and limiting the number of sexual partners.
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