January is Cervical Health Awareness Month and there’s no better place to focus your attention than your cervix. From that one small area – that comprises the “nose-like” projection at the top of your vagina – a lot of great things can happen, a few “not-so-great” things can manifest if you aren’t proactively paying attention.
What is the Cervix?
While most people know that a cervix dilates when a woman is in labor, that is about all they know. The cervix is a cylindrical section of tissue that connects your vagina to your uterus. It changes throughout your menstrual cycle – in response to hormonal fluctuations.
In addition to keeping a developing fetus in, the cervix also helps to control fertility by changing the consistency and make-up of important cervical fluids that work to block or facilitate the sperm’s passage through the cervix and into the fallopian tubes. During non-fertile phases of your cycle, the fluid may be practically non-existent or quite thick. As you become more fertile, leading up to and during ovulation, this mucus thins out and develops and egg white-like consistency to help sperm swim to their intended target.
When it comes to testing cervical health, your doctor is interested in the shape of the cells that comprise the external and internal areas of the cervix. Any visible or microscopic abnormalities can indicate the presence of pre-cancerous or cancerous cells.
The Connection Between Annual Exams and Cervical Health
Most of the time, the cervix goes about its business without any problems and remains healthy throughout a woman’s lifetime. However, every year, 12,000 American women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, a typically slow-growing (although not always!) cancer that can be difficult or impossible to treat if it is caught too late.
Once of the leading causes of cervical cancer is the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is transmitted through sexual intercourse. The virus, like the early stages of cervical cancer, is often asymptomatic. This means there are no symptoms – so women can have it, not know it and put themselves at risk for developing cervical cancer. Plus, they also risk spreading it to their partners and other women.
There are a few ways to protect your cervix – and yourself – from contracting HPV and/or developing cervical cancer:
- Use protection. Use a condom whenever you’re having sex with a new partner, or are not in a committed, monogamous relationship. If you have the slightest suspicion your partner isn’t faithful, use a condom. Condoms are the best method of protecting yourself from HPV along with other sexually transmitted diseases that can affect your health, your partner’s health as well as your future baby’s health.
- Visit your OB/GYN once a year. Your annual well-woman visit is completely free and available to any woman with medical insurance. If you aren’t insured, odds are a Planned Parenthood or health clinic in your area provides free or very low-fee exams and testing. An annual pelvic exam combined with routine pap smears, which test for abnormal cervical cells, is key to catching any potential issues that may compromise cervical health. Since the advent of pap smears and routine exams, cervical cancer rates have decreased by 50%.
- Get the HPV vaccine. There is now a vaccine for HPV. It is recommended that adolescents girls and all sexually active women – ages 9 through 26 – get vaccinated for HPV, significantly lowering their chances of developing high-risk strains of HPV that lead to cancer, as well as some low-risk forms of genital warts. Pre-teen boys, ages 11 and 12 can also get the vaccine, making it impossible for them to contract and spread it when they become sexually active.
- Get tested. If you are sexually active, it’s a good idea to take advantage of STD screenings through your OB/GYN, Planned Parenthood or a local clinic. These screenings can test for HPV, herpes, HIV, chlamydia, herpes and other STDs, many of which can be treated.
- Spread the word. The goal of Cervical Health Awareness month is to spread the word and make sure every woman understands how important it is to take control of her physical health and well-being – especially in terms of her reproductive health. Make sure the women in your life are getting their annual well-woman exams
Start 2019 off on a healthy note and schedule an appointment with Overlake OB/GYN.