5 ways to lower your cervical cancer risk

Essential tips to help prevent cervical cancer or catch it in time to treat.

woman, patient, doctor, women's health

Updated on March 28, 2024.

With timely screenings and the proper prevention methods, cervical cancer can be found early—when treatment is most possible—or avoided all together. Thanks to advancements like the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine and updated screening guidelines, cervical cancer is claiming fewer lives every year.

That said, many people may not know that there are science-backed ways to lower their risk. More than 14,000 new cases of cervical cancer are still diagnosed each year in the United States, and more than 4,200 people die from the disease annually. 

With that in mind, here are steps you can take to help prevent the disease.

Get the HPV vaccine

HPV causes an infection that’s spread through skin-to-skin contact, most often during sex or sexual activities. HPV has more than 150 different strains, some of which can lead to cancer, including cervical, vaginal, penile, anal, and oral cancer. Getting vaccinated can help protect against these cancers.

Vaccination against HPV begins in childhood. It's recommended that all boys and girls receive the two-dose vaccine between the ages of 9 and 12. Three doses are recommended if you begin vaccination on or after your 15th birthday. In special circumstances, a healthcare provider may recommend receiving the vaccine up until age 45.

Even if you already have HPV, you should still get vaccinated if you’re under the age limit. Why? “Because the HPV vaccine protects against several strains of the virus, not just one. Even if you have HPV, it’s unlikely that you’d have multiple strains,” says Howard Saul, DO, a gynecologist/oncologist in New Jersey.

Go for routine screenings

“One of the big reasons why we still see cervical cancer today is that many women don’t go for screenings,” says Dr. Saul. Following routine screening guidelines can help your OBGYN detect cancer cells at an early stage, when the disease is still highly treatable.

Cervical cancer screening involves Pap testing, or “Pap smears,” starting at age 21. During a Pap test, your healthcare provider will ask you to lie on the examining table with your legs in the stirrups. They will use a speculum, a lubricated tool, to open your vagina and inspect your cervix. Your healthcare provider will then use a brush or another tool called a spatula to gently scrape a sample of cervical cells and send it to the lab for testing.

How often should you go for Pap testing?

Before age 30: Every three years

After age 30: 

  • Every three years for a Pap test alone
  • Every five years for a Pap test in combination with an HPV test 

You may also get an HPV test alone every five years. 

Practice safe sex

Each sexual partner presents a new opportunity to come in contact with HPV. “Even if you have a single sexual partner or you’ve only had one sexual encounter, you're still ‘having sex,’ in a way, with all of the people that he or she has slept with before you,” says Dr. Saul. That is, you’re exposing yourself to all of the sexually transmitted illnesses (STIs) that they could have picked up before you. Having fewer sexual partners can reduce your risk of STIs and cervical cancer. 

If you have sex with multiple partners, use a condom—even if you’re on birth control. “Wearing a condom offers protection against HPV and other sexually transmitted diseases like HIV,” says Saul. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which weakens the immune system, can also increase your risk of cervical and other cancers.

It’s worth noting, though, that while practicing safe sex with condoms is always a good idea, doing so cannot provide complete protection against HPV since HPV can infect areas that aren’t covered by the condom, such as the mouth and throat.

So, use protection during oral sex as well. If you’re going to perform oral sex on a male partner, have him wear a condom. For a female partner, use a dental dam, or a piece of latex that may be used as a protective barrier.

If you’re in a committed relationship, rather than making assumptions have a frank discussion with your partner about whether you’ll only have sex with each other. If you suspect that your spouse or partner has been sexually active outside of your relationship, both of you should get tested for STIs.

The age of your first sexual encounter may also determine your risk for cervical cancer, says Dr. Saul. In a young person, the immunity of the cervix is immature; the ‘transformation zone,’ or an area of the cervix that’s more prone to infections and abnormal cell formation, hasn’t fully developed. It’s less able to defend against viruses than the transformation zone of a mature person, he explains.

Get help quitting tobacco

Cigarette smoking can worsen HPV and put you at risk for cervical cancer because tobacco damages the transformation zone, decreasing protection for your cervix,” says Dr. Saul. “Most people think of cigarette smoking as affecting the heart and lungs. They don’t understand that it can affect the cervix as well.” In fact, women who smoke are more than twice as likely to develop cervical cancer as non-smokers, according to the American Cancer Society.

Having a partner who smokes can increase your risk too, adds Dr. Saul. “Researchers have found nicotine in the cervixes of women whose husbands smoke, even when the women themselves aren't smokers.” For help quitting tobacco and to find out whether you insurance might cover, speak with your healthcare provider.

Include vitamin A rich foods in your diet

Evidence suggests that vitamin A may offer some protection against cervical cancer. The benefit may be even greater when vitamin A comes from foods rich in beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is a plant pigment that’s responsible for the orange color of certain fruits and vegetables. It becomes vitamin A after your body absorbs it.

“To increase your vitamin A intake, include more orange foods like carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and winter squash,” recommends Dr. Saul.

Even so, the best protection against cervical cancer is to get vaccinated, complete the full series of vaccinations, and go to routine screenings.

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