January is cervical health awareness month. Hooray! Although it’s great to be aware, what even are we being aware of? What is a cervix and how can it be healthy? All good questions with answers!
What is the cervix?
The cervix is essentially a small area of your body that connects your vagina to your uterus. The cervix sits at the top of the vaginal canal and has very small openings on either end. The cervix is about 1 to 2 inches long, and the openings open and close just to let out discharge, menstrual blood, or to let sperm pass through. The cervix opens super-wide during childbirth, and acts as a barrier to keep bacteria out of the womb all the time, but especially during pregnancy.
The cervix is super important for your reproductive health because it does so much to keep your vagina and uterus clean and healthy. Just like any other part of your body, the cervix can be unhealthy. The main concern with cervical health is cervical cancer. When someone with a cervix turns 21 or becomes sexually active, regardless of their age, they should start having regular Pap smears.
What happens during a cervical Pap smear?
A Pap smear is a procedure done by your gynecologist in their office to test the cells of your cervix. Your doctor will take a small sample of cervical cells by using a little brush to gently scrape your cervix and collect the cells. You might be thinking, “Uhh how can a scrape be GENTLE?!” It is uncomfortable, but the actual test takes literal seconds. Your doctor will have you undress from the waist down, put your feet in some stirrups so your legs are spread easily, and takes a look. Your gynecologist will prop open your vagina using a speculum, which kind of looks like a long beak made out of metal or plastic. The speculum holds your vaginal walls open so your doctor can reach your cervix. They’ll reach in with their brush, scrape the cervix really quickly, then take the speculum out and you’re done. Some doctors will also use their fingers to reach inside and feel around your vagina and feel the cervix to make sure nothing feels off. The whole exam is uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t be painful. If you experience pain during any part of the exam, tell your doctor immediately! You might bleed a little bit after the exam. Mild bleeding is normal, but if you bleed excessively, call your doctor immediately.
How often should I have my Pap smear?
If you are 21-25ish and have never had an abnormal result from a smear, it’s recommended to get a Pap test done every three years. Women in their thirties through menopause should get one every three years along with an HPV test. Women over the age of 65 who have never had an abnormal result might be able to stop getting Pap smears done altogether. If you’ve had an abnormal result before, have a history of cervical cancer, or have any conditions that weaken your immune system, you should get one done every year, regardless of your age. Talk to your doctor and they’ll be able to tell you how often you should get a smear done to maximize your health.
What are possible cervical health risks?
Unhealthy cervical cells are most commonly caused by HPV or human papillomavirus. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease. If you are sexually active, you will almost certainly have HPV at some point in your life. There are about 200 types of HPV, and most types are harmless, show no symptoms, and go away on their own. It’s possible you’ll never know you’ve had HPV. HPV is so common because its spread sexually, but also through skin-to-skin contact. If you do show symptoms, you will likely get warts, genital or otherwise. They can easily be treated. In most cases, HPV is harmless and will go away on its own before you ever have symptoms. Think of it kind of like the common cold. You can get a cold through contact with other people and their germs. Most of the time your cold will go away on its own, but in some cases, it can turn into something more serious. About 12 types of HPV can cause cancer, including types 16 and 18, which are the main culprits.
There is no cure for HPV, which is why getting regular Pap smears done is so important so abnormal cervical cells can be detected and removed right away. You can also get an HPV vaccine, which is recommended for kids of all genders when they’re about 11 or 12. The HPV vaccine is given in three rounds and helps protect against most types of HPV that cause cancer. Just because you’ve had the vaccine, however, doesn’t mean you won’t have another type of HPV at some point–just hopefully not the cancer-causing kind. If you’re an adult and haven’t had the HPV vaccine, it’s never too late! The HPV vaccine used to only be given to girls in middle school, but since it first hit the scene research has been done that boys should also get the vaccine. Although boys and men don’t typically have cervixes, they can still carry and spread HPV, which could lead to cervical cancer in a partner with a cervix. Now people up to age 45 can get the vaccine if they didn’t get it as a kid.
Your cervix is an easy part of your body to forget about because it’s tucked away inside of you, working away without much notice. Because you can’t see your cervix, it’s important to stay on top of your cervical health. Get regular Pap smears done once you become sexually active or once you turn 21. After your first smear, your doctor will tell you how often you should get your Pap smear done going forward. Check and see if you’ve had the HPV vaccine, and if you have kids, make sure they get the vaccine as well. You can also ask your doctor to do an HPV test to check your cervical health that way as well. Now go schedule your annual, or semi-annual Pap test!