January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, which makes this the perfect time to improve your health literacy and plan your health goals. Don’t know where to start? No worries–we’ll give you the rundown on what you should know about cervical health.
What is a cervix?
Located in the lowest and innermost part of the uterus, the cervix is a cylinder-shaped neck of tissue that connects the uterus to the vagina. The outer portion of the cervix, the part seen by doctors during exams, is called the ectocervix. The inner portion is called the endocervix. The endocervix also includes a small opening in the center of the ectocervix called the cervical os which leads from the ectocervix to the uterus.
What does the cervix do?
The cervix plays many important roles. For starters, it acts as a barrier between the uterus and the vagina–so it’s one of the reasons a tampon doesn’t get lost in your body.
During menstruation, the cervical os opens to allow the blood and tissues from the uterus to be expelled. After menstruation, the cervix produces mucus that helps clean the vagina and prevent infection.
For some people, the cervix is a pleasure center during deep penetrative sex, and it aids in conception by changing positions during ovulation to increase the chance of pregnancy.
During pregnancy, the cervix creates a mucus plug that protects the fetus from infection. And during childbirth, it is the cervix that widens to allow for the passage of the baby.
Why are pap smears important?
Pap smears are important because they are the best way to screen the cervix for any signs of infection, abnormalities, or cancer. The earlier an infection or cancer is detected, the more likely it is to be treated and prevented from spreading.
What happens during a pap smear?
Pap smears are done in gynecologists offices and are quick and painless. First, you will be asked to change into an examining robe and then to lie down on an exam table. Your feet will rest in stirrups and the gynecologist will begin the exam by inserting a speculum into the vagina.
Speculums are usually made of metal or plastic and come in different sizes. They are used in pap smears to hold the walls of the vagina apart. Gynecologists may use what’s known as a Huffman speculum to examine patients who haven’t yet been sexually active to allow for a more comfortable examination.
This part of the examination may cause feelings of pressure, but it shouldn’t be painful. Once the speculum is secured, the gynecologist will swab the cervix with a soft brush or small spatula. After the sample is taken, the speculum is removed, and the exam is over.
What are the risk factors for cervical cancer?
According to the CDC, almost all cervical cancers are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that has many variants (more than 40). High-risk variants of HPV may cause cervical cancer because they are not successfully controlled by the immune system.
As a result, infection persists, in some cases over many years, and this can lead to cell changes in the cervix. If left untreated, these cell changes may get worse and become cancerous. Getting vaccinated with a HPV vaccine can prevent infection with disease-causing HPV variants that cause infection-related cancers or genital warts. Practicing safe sex by using condoms can also reduce your chance of getting HPV.
However, having HPV isn’t the only risk factor for getting cervical cancer. Smoking, having immune system deficiency, being older, or having limited access to health services all increase your risk of getting cervical cancer, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).
Want to know how to keep your cervix healthy? Follow these tips:
- Get routine pap smears
- Get the HPV vaccine
- Get tested for HPV every five years
- Practice safe sex
- Look out for problematic symptoms. These include:
- Pain during sex
- Bleeding after sex
- Abnormal discharge that may be watery, bloody, or foul-smelling
- Pelvic pain
- Boost your immunity with healthy eating and exercise
- Take time to relax and de-stress