"While it isn't clear what sparks the cervical cells to change their DNA, it is certain that HPV plays a role," says Kristina Butler, M.D., a Mayo Clinic gynecologic oncologist.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. "Over 85% of the general population has been exposed," says Dr. Butler. "Most people with HPV never develop cervical cancer."
Screening tests and the HPV vaccine can help prevent cervical cancer from developing. "Cervical cancer rates in the U.S. have dropped dramatically, thanks to Pap smears and HPV testing," says Paul Magtibay, M.D., a Mayo Clinic gynecologic oncologist.
If you have a cervix, here’s what you can do to reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer:
The HPV vaccine offers the most protection when given before a person becomes sexually active. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the HPV vaccine for routine vaccination at age 11 or 12 and everyone through age 26 who was not previously vaccinated.
Adults 27 to 45 who were not vaccinated should discuss the HPV vaccine with their health care professional.
"The HPV vaccination can now be given to all adults up to age 45," says Dr. Butler. "After cervical precancer or even HPV exposure, the vaccine provides benefits. We have good evidence to support this. At Mayo Clinic, we recommend HPV vaccination even after cervical cancer."
Screening tests can help detect cervical cancer and precancerous cells that may one day develop into cervical cancer.
Screening tests include:
Talk to your health care professional about the screening tests and schedule that are best for you.
Catching cervical cancer early gives you a greater chance for a cure. "We aim to detect cervical cancer as early as possible," says Dr. Butler. "Early-stage cervical cancer has much improved survival and reduced recurrence."
"HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact, often during sexual encounters," says Dr. Butler.
Having sex at an early age increases your risk of HPV, and the more sexual partners you have, the more likely you are to contract HPV. Having sex with a partner who has had multiple sex partners also increases your risk.
Reduce your risk of cervical cancer by taking measures to prevent HPV and other sexually transmitted infections by limiting the number of sexual partners you have and using a condom every time you have sex.
"It only takes one sexual encounter to contract HPV," stresses Dr. Butler.
According to the American Cancer Society, people who smoke are more likely to get cervical cancer than those who don’t. Researchers believe tobacco byproducts, which have been found in the cervical mucus of smokers, may damage the DNA of cervix cells, which can contribute to the development of cervical cancer. Smoking also weakens the immune system's ability to fight off infections, including HPV.
If you don't smoke, don't start. If you do smoke, talk to your health care professional about strategies to help you quit.
This story originally appeared in the Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center Blog.