How to Prevent Cervical Cancer

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Cervical cancer is caused by abnormalities in the cells of the cervix that usually progress slowly over time, and is almost always caused by an infection with high-risk forms of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection. Lifestyle approaches can reduce your risk, and vaccination can be very effective in preventing the HPV infection that leads to the cancer in the first place.

Regular screening with a primary HPV test or a combination of an HPV test and a Pap smear can identify early precancerous changes, and treatment, when needed, can greatly reduce the chance that cervical cancer will develop or spread. 

When it comes to cervical cancer, the importance of screening and vaccination cannot be overstated. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 93% of cervical cancers are preventable.


Some lifestyle habits can lower your risk of becoming infected with HPV, and may also reduce the chances of developing cervical cancer if you do become infected. 

cervical cancer causes and risk factors

Sexual Partners

Having sex with multiple partners increases your risk of exposure to HPV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Having fewer partners may reduce your chances of getting the virus and spreading it to others.

Of course, it is possible to become infected with HPV even having only one partner, if your partner has been exposed to the virus by other partners. 

Most of the time, women do not know that they have HPV until changes in the cervix are detected, and men generally do not know that they have the virus. That is just one reason why screening is so important.

Condom Use

Consistent and correct use of condoms can help prevent HPV infection. Because HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact of the genital areas, condoms can reduce the chances of spreading infection by adding a barrier of protection. That said, condoms do not provide complete protection against HPV, because contact with the virus can still occur even with their use.

Smoking Cessation

Not smoking reduces the risk of developing cervical cancer, although smoking is not related to whether or not you will get the HPV virus. Smoking depletes your overall immune function, which normally helps you fight viruses such as HPV, as well as cancer. Women who smoke are about twice as likely as non-smokers to get cervical cancer.


Research shows that a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, maintenance of a healthy weight, and regular physical activity can reduce the risk of cervical cancer. This is likely due to the fact that a healthy lifestyle optimizes immune system function and reduces the impact of cancer-promoting changes in the body. 

Additionally, a research study from South America suggested that curcumin, a spice with antioxidant properties, may show promise in the inhibition of cervical cancer in a research setting. Antioxidants are naturally occurring substances that you can get from some types of foods (fruits and vegetables, in particular) that may help to counteract free radicals within your body that have been associated with the development of cancer. Although, more research is needed to confirm the benefits.

It's also important to focus on getting antioxidants from whole foods instead of supplements, since clinical trials have found that antioxidant supplements often have little to no effect on cancer risk or mortality, and some may even increase the risk of cancer.


An intrauterine device (IUD) is a method of birth control that is placed in the uterus by a healthcare provider. The position of the device prevents pregnancy, and IUDs may contain spermicidal medication as well.

A systemic analysis of 16 research studies including 12,482 women concluded that cervical cancer was one-third less common in women who had IUDs. It is not completely clear why this effect occurs, but it is believed to be related to the immune system's response to IUDs. 

HPV Vaccination

There are a number of different strains of the HPV virus, and vaccination targets those that pose the greatest risk of cervical cancer. 

Infection with HPV 16 and 18 represent around 70% of all cervical cancer cases, as well as high rates of anal, penile, and head and neck cancers. Another 20% of cases of cervical cancer are related to HPV 31, 33, 34, 45, 52, and 58. Additional HPV viruses that are associated with cervical cancer include HPV 35, 39, 51, 56, 59, 66, and 68.

The low-risk HPV strains HPV 6 and 11 do not typically cause cancer, but may lead to the development of genital warts

Gardasil 9 is the vaccination option available in the United States; there are others available internationally. It protects against HPV 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58. The vaccine is given as a series of two or three shots over the course of six to 12 months. It is injected into the muscle of the thigh or upper arm and generally causes mild pain and discomfort. 

Gardasil 9 is recommended for everyone up to age 26, and some people up to age 45, to prevent new infections and spread of HPV. You can have the vaccination if you are sexually active and in this age group. 

In the past, two other vaccines were used: Gardasil and Cervarix. The original Gardasil vaccine provided protection for HPV 6, 11, 16, and 18; Cervarix only offered protection against HPV 16 and 18, but as noted, these strains account for around 70% of infections.

While it has been thought that HPV vaccination could reduce cervical cancer risk, a 2020 study provided evidence to back up that assumption. Swedish women and girls were given a quadrivalent vaccine (an HPV vaccine that protected against four of the strains above) and the incidence of cervical cancer was monitored.

Among those who received the vaccine prior to age 17, the incidence of cervical cancer was 88% lower than for those who were not vaccinated. Among women who were vaccinated later (between age 17 and 30, even if already sexually active), the incidence of the disease was 53% lower.

HPV vaccination can greatly reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer.

Check-Ups and Screening

If you experience any itching, bleeding, or discomfort of the vaginal area, be sure to report these problems to your healthcare provider. These can be early signs of HPV, cervical cancer, or another sexually transmitted disease or illness. 

Of course, going for regular check-ups with your primary care healthcare provider and/or gynecologist is important even if you don't have such symptoms. The fact that cervical cancer is currently the fourth most common cancer in women is a good enough reason to see your healthcare provider on a regular basis overall.


A Pap smear is a screening test that can detect the majority of cervical changes associated with the development of cancer, allowing for earlier treatment when success rates are higher. A primary HPV test is a test that checks specifically for high-risk types of HPV that are associated with cervical cancer.

Your healthcare provider will obtain a sample of tissue during a pelvic exam, using a small brush that scrapes the cervix. The test is mildly uncomfortable but does not require any anesthesia. This test may be done along with an HPV test, or an HPV test may be done alone (called primary HPV testing). You may experience mild bleeding for a few minutes up to a few hours, but you should not have persistent bleeding or pain.  

The Pap sample is examined under a microscope to identify irregularities in the size, shape, and organization of cells of the cervix. Abnormalities that are not cancerous are often described as cervical dysplasia. Your HPV test will be reported as either positive or negative, and in the case of a positive, the specific strain may be noted. After your tests, your results may take up to a week to be sent to your healthcare provider.

According to 2020 guidelines, either an HPV test alone or a combination of an HPV test and a Pap smear is recommended every five years starting at the age of 25 and continuing until the age of 65 (as long as you don't have any abnormal results). If you live in an area where HPV testing is unavailable, a Pap test every three years is an alternative. More frequent or early testing may be recommended if you have an abnormal screening test or have a medical condition that places you at higher risk.

Women should have an HPV test or an HPV test plus a Pap smear every five years from the age of 25 to 65.

Women Under the Age of 25

The age at initial screening was increased from age 21 to 25 in the 2020 guidelines. This is because HPV infections acquired in young women are more likely to resolve without causing cervical abnormalities, and screening those under 25 can lead to unnecessary treatments and side effects. In addition, many people are now protected by the vaccine.

That said, if you are younger than the age of 25 and sexually active, it is a good idea to schedule an exam with a gynecologist, family healthcare provider, or pediatrician. In addition to helping you decide if you need earlier screening, they can help you plan for either pregnancy or birth control, and if needed, do an evaluation for other STDs.

Follow-Up of Abnormal Results

If your HPV test is positive or if your Pap smear shows evidence of dysplasia, your healthcare provider may recommend further testing, such as a colposcopic exam, or at least more frequent follow up. Sometimes treatments to remove abnormal cells will be needed. For those who have been treated for significant dysplasia, screening will be recommended no more than every three years for at least 25 years.

Cervical Cancer Healthcare Provider Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next healthcare provider's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Woman

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Which age has the highest risk of cervical cancer?

    The age groups most frequently diagnosed with cervical cancer are between 35 and 44 years old, with an average age of 50 years old. That said, the risk of cervical cancer isn't determined by age, but it rarely appears in people younger than 20.

  • Is there a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer?

    An HPV vaccine is known to help prevent infections that can lead to cervical cancer. However, it is not recommended for people older than age 26. An HPV vaccine requires multiple shots.

  • Does an IUD help prevent cervical cancer?

    It is possible that an intrauterine device (IUD) can help prevent the risk of cervical cancer. One study found that cervical cancer incidence was one-third less frequent in women who had an IUD. Using a condom during sex along with an IUD can further reduce the risk of an HPV infection that leads to cervical cancer.

13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  7. Cortessis VK, Barrett M, Brown Wade N, et al. Intrauterine device use and cervical cancer risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Obstet Gynecol. 2017;130(6):1226-1236. doi:10.1097/AOG.0000000000002307

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  9. Lei J, Ploner A, Elfstrom KM, et al. HPV vaccination and the risk of invasive cervical cancer. N Engl J Med. 2020;383:1340-1348. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1917338

  10. Fontham ETH, Wolf AMD, Church TR, et al. Cervical cancer screening for individuals at average risk: 2020 guideline update from the American Cancer SocietyCA Cancer J Clin. 2020. doi:10.3322/caac.21628

  11. National Cancer Institute. ACS's updated cervical cancer screening guidelines explained.

  12. Perkins RB, Guido RS, Castle PE, et al. 2019 ASCCP risk-based management consensus guidelines for abnormal cervical cancer screening tests and cancer precursorsJ Low Genit Tract Dis. 2020;24(2):102-131. doi:10.1097/LGT.0000000000000525

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By Lisa Fayed
Lisa Fayed is a freelance medical writer, cancer educator and patient advocate.