Understanding Cervical Cancer -- the Basics
What Causes Cervical Cancer?
Doctors are getting closer to understanding the underlying causes of cervical cancer and have identified a number of factors that put you at higher risk for developing the disease.
HPV. The most important risk factor for cervical cancer is infection with the sexually transmitted infection called human papillomavirus.
There are more than 100 different types of HPV, of which 40 infect the genital tract. Some types of HPV cause genital warts. Other types cause warts elsewhere on the body. Only certain types of HPV increase cervical cancer risk. They are called “high-risk” types of HPV. They include types 16, 18, 31, 33, and 45, and others.
Genital HPV is passed from one person to another during skin to skin sexual contact. Most people who are infected with HPV clear the virus on their own and will not develop cervical cancer. HPV infection can cause changes in the cervical cells which then can be picked up on a Pap test. Recently, some doctors have started testing for HPV at the time of a Pap. If a high-risk type of HPV is found in women with an abnormal Pap test, doctors may do a colposcopy (look at the cervix directly with a specialized microscope).
What puts you at risk of HPV infection?
- Having intercourse at an early age, especially if before 18 years of age or within one year of the start of your period
- Having many sexual partners
- Having unprotected sex
- Having genital warts
- Multiple pregnancies
There are two vaccines directed against the HPV viruses types 16 and 18, which are known to cause cervical cancer. They may also protect against genital warts by attacking HPV types 6 and 11. They are effective in preventing infection and precancerous cells 90%-100% of the time and are indicated for girls and women aged 9-26. One of them, Gardasil, has also been approved for boys and men aged 9-26.
Chlamydia infection. Chlamydia is a common sexually transmitted infection of the reproductive tract. It may or may not cause symptoms. This infection can be detected by your doctor. Recent studies have found that women whose blood tests show past or current chlamydia infection are at higher risk for cervical cancer than those who test negative.