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The link between cervical cancer and unsafe sex

Your sexual activity can lead to cervical cancer. Know the facts.

18 September 2019
2 minute read

Woman researching online

Did you know that a common virus, transmitted through sexual intercourse, is the cause of almost all cervical cancer? Here’s how you can protect yourself.

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer forms when the DNA in cells in the cervix mutate or change. In some cases, these mutated cells grow out of control, forming a tumor. Cervical cancer is the most common cancer among women aged 14 to 44 in South Africa, and the leading cause of deaths from cancer among women in general.

What is HPV and how does it give me cervical cancer?

The HPV virus is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). It is so common that 80% of all women would have tested positive for HPV at least one time in their life by age 50.There are over 100 different types of HPV and most of them are harmless, but two types, namely HPV 16 and HPV 18, can lead to cervical cancer or genital warts.

HPV is transmittedthrough skin to skin contact, body fluids and sexual intercourse. It is most commonly spread during vaginal or anal sex.The more sexual partners a person has, the higher the risk of contracting HPV.Condom use can reduce HPV risk.

HPV is found in about 99% of cervical cancers, although in rare cases, other risk factors may trigger the onset of cervical cancer.

What else increases my risk for cervical cancer?

Smoking: Women who smoke are about twice as likely as non-smokers to get cervical cancer. Tobacco by-products have been found in the cervical mucus of women who smoke. Researchers believe that these substances damage the DNA of cervix cells and may contribute to the development of cervical cancer.

HIV infection: HIV creates a higher risk because itmakes it difficult for the body to fight infections, so HPV is more likely to develop into cervical cancer. 

Early sexual debut: Becoming sexually active during puberty can increase the risk for cervical cancer. Researchers think this is because the cervix changes during puberty, making the area more vulnerable to damage.

Chlamydia infection: Women with HPV who have, or have had chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease, have an increased risk for cervical cancer. Researchers think that long-term inflammation caused by chlamydia makes it harder for the body to clear the HPV infection.

Have your Pap

Most people with HPV never show any signs they are infected, and cervical cancer may take 20 years or longer to develop after an HPV infection. That’s why Pap tests are so important. A Pap test doesn’t directly test for cancer or HPV, but it can detect abnormal cell changes that are likely caused by HPV.

The South African HPV Advisory Board recommends that a woman should begin having Pap tests when she becomes sexually active or turns 21. Annual testing should be done until the age of 30 and thereafter every three years. Check with your doctor how often you should have it done.

Get the HPV vaccine

Stay healthy

Cervical cancer is on the decline in countries where the HPV vaccine is routinely given. It’s good to know that the vaccine and regular Pap smears can greatly reduce your risk of contracting the disease.

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