By Sophia L. Thomas, DNP, FNP-BC, PPCNP-BC, FNAP, FAANP
In January, the United States observes Cervical Health Awareness Month, an opportunity to raise awareness of the importance of cervical health. In 2018, more than 300,000 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer worldwide, yet the disease is preventable with vaccination and regular screening.
Cervical cancer is most often diagnosed in women aged 35 to 44, and nearly 20% of cases are found in women over the age of 65. In the United States, Hispanic women are the most susceptible to cervical cancer, followed by African Americans, American Indians and Alaskan natives.
This disease is most often caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection that affects nearly 79 million Americans, generally in their late teens and early twenties. Most people who have HPV do not know they are infected and may never show any symptoms. If symptoms do present, it can often occur years after the virus was contracted, making it difficult to pinpoint the time of infection.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that boys and girls get the HPV vaccine between the ages of 11 and 12, as well as anyone under the age 26 who didn’t receive the vaccine as a child. As HPV is often a silent disease, vaccination is the best line of defense.
For adult women, it is recommended to start receiving cervical cancer screenings at age 25. There are two main screenings for cervical cancer: the HPV test and the Papanicolaou (Pap) test. The HPV test looks for infection by high-risk types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer, and the Pap test looks for changes in the cervix. It is recommended that women between the ages of 25 and 65 get an HPV test every five years and a Pap test every three years. Women over the age of 65 who have had regular screenings should stop receiving cervical cancer screenings. Once screenings are stopped, they shouldn’t be restarted.
Women who have received the HPV vaccine should still receive the recommended screenings. There is a common misconception that once a woman stops having children, they no longer need to receive screenings. This isn’t true, and a talk with a health care provider can help clear up any confusion.
Ladies, if you haven’t had an HPV or Pap test in the last five years, or if you are due for your regular screening, Cervical Health Awareness Month is the perfect opportunity to put your health first. Talk to a nurse practitioner or other health care provider to learn more, and let’s make 2021 our healthiest one yet.