Cervical cancer is a disease in which cancer cells arise in the cervix, which connects the uterus to the vagina. HPV is almost always the cause of cervical cancer, which is why vaccines against the virus are an important part of cervical cancer prevention strategies.
Cervical cancer was the fourth most commonly diagnosed cancer type in women, after breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and lung cancer. It was also the fourth most common cause of cancer death in women. Cervical cancer is a major public health problem that affects middle-aged women, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.
You can lower your risk for cervical cancer by getting screened regularly, starting at age 21.
Two tests help prevent cervical cancer or find it early. They include:
- The Pap test (or Pap smear) which looks for precancers, which are cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately and
- The human papillomavirus (HPV) test which looks for the virus that can cause these cell changes.
You should get your first Pap test at age 21. If your test result is normal, you can wait three years for your next test.
If you’re 30 years old or older, you have three options—
- You can continue getting a Pap test only. If your test result is normal, you can wait three years for your next test.
- You can get an HPV test only. If your test result is normal, you can wait five years for your next test.
- You can get both an HPV and Pap test together. If your test results are normal, you can wait five years for your next tests.
The HPV vaccine protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical cancers. HPV can also cause other kinds of cancer in both men and women.
- HPV vaccination is recommended for preteens aged 11 to 12 years, but can be given starting at age 9.
- HPV vaccine also is recommended for everyone through age 26 years, if they are not vaccinated already.
- HPV vaccination is not recommended for everyone older than age 26 years. However, some adults age 27 through 45 years who are not already vaccinated may decide to get the HPV vaccine after speaking with their doctor about their risk for new HPV infections and the possible benefits of vaccination. HPV vaccination in this age range provides less benefit, as more people have already been exposed to HPV.
HPV vaccination prevents new HPV infections, but does not treat existing infections or diseases. This is why the HPV vaccine works best when given before any exposure to HPV. You should get screened for cervical cancer regularly, even if you received an HPV vaccine.