Health A-Z

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Almost all cervical cancer is caused by infection with HPV. There are currently two available HPV vaccines that target the major cervical cancer-causing types of HPV. The vaccines do not protect against all types of HPV.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all females starting at ages 11 or 12 get the HPV vaccine. Older girls and young women up to age 26 also should be vaccinated. Girls as young as nine years old may receive the vaccine. The vaccine is given as a set of three shots over six months.

Detecting cervical cancer early dramatically increases your chances of a cure. That is why Pap tests are an important part of prevention.

Women at average risk of cervical cancer should begin regular Pap testing at age 21. Pap smears should be done once every 3 years until age 30, as long as prior Pap smears have been normal. No HPV screening for women under age 30.

Women age 30 and over can be screened with a Pap smear once every three years if they have had three normal Pap smears in a row. If a women age 30 or older has HPV testing and the HPV test is negative, Pap smears can be done once every 5 years.

Women that have an increased risk of cervical cancer need more frequent screening. Usually this means at least once per year. Risk factors that increase risk include:

  • HIV infection

  • Conditions or medications that decrease immunity

  • Having a mother that took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) during pregnancy

  • Any prior cervical biopsies that showed cancerous cells

Other steps to help prevent cervical cancer:

  • Limit your number of sexual partners to reduce possible exposure to HPV.

  • Use condoms during vaginal sex (unless you have only one sexual partner who you know does not have any sexually transmitted diseases).

  • If you smoke, quit.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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