Why Are Young Women More Prone to Cervical Infections?

Gynecologist performing a cervical smear or pap test on a teenage patient
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The biology of the uterine cervix changes with age. Understanding how, and how it affects the risk of cervical infection, means understanding the biology of the cervix. The cells on the surface of the cervix facing the vagina (the ectocervix) are, by and large, a type of cell known as squamous cells. Squamous cells are a type of epithelial cell. They are flat, like pieces of paper. The cells on the inside of the cervix are a different type of cell. These are called columnar epithelial cells. They line the passage from the vagina to the uterus. This passage is known as the endocervix.

The space in between where these two cell types are clearly established is known as the transformation zone. The transformation zone is the area of the cervix where the single layer of columnar cells is being replaced by multiple layers of squamous cells. The vast majority of cervical cancers start in the transformation zone. This is because the transformation zone is the area where the squamous cells that HPV prefers to infect are most vulnerable.

Cervical Ectopy

Cervical ectopy is how doctors describe the condition when columnar cells from the endocervix are present on the ectocervix. In this condition, a woman's cervix is more susceptible to cervicitis, or cervical infection. In particular, columnar cells are more likely to be infected by chlamydia, gonorrhea, and certain forms of HPV. (Most HPV strains preferentially infect squamous cells). Some degree of ectopy is normal during puberty. The amount of ectopy usually decreases over time. This is a natural consequence of aging.

Why Younger Women Are At Increased Risk of Cervical Infection

Younger post-pubertal women have more ectopy than older women. Therefore, the cervix of a young woman has a greater area of cells that are susceptible to STD infection. Young women also have larger transformation zones. That results in an increased risk of abnormal Pap smears and cervical cancer.

Age isn't the only factor that determines the risk of a cervix infection. It's not even the only factor that affects the amount of cervical ectopy. Both pregnancy and oral contraceptive use, can also affect the amount of cervical ectopy and size of the transformation zone.

What Are The Signs of a Cervix Infection?

If you have a cervical infection, symptoms may include:

  • abnormal vaginal discharge
  • abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • pain during sex
  • pain during urination
  • frequent urination
  • pelvic pain

However, many women with cervicitis have no symptoms. The only way to be certain if you have a cervical infection is to get tested by a doctor. If you are sexually active, you should be screened for STDs on an annual basis.

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