What We Need to Know About Cervical Health
The cervix is a hollow, pear-shaped organ that forms a tunnel between the uterus and the vagina. Its function is to allow the flow of menstrual blood from the uterus and to direct sperm into the uterus.
Like any part of the body, there are things that can go wrong with the cervix.
Disorders of the Cervix
Cervicitis is inflammation of the cervix, often caused by infection but which can also be caused by an allergic reaction to, for instance, spermicides or latex in condoms. Symptoms can include bleeding between periods, pain during sex or during a cervical exam, abnormal vaginal discharge, or bleeding after sex. However, as the Mayo Clinic notes, “it’s also possible to have cervicitis and not experience and signs or symptoms”. Treatment of cervicitis is to address the underlying cause of the inflammation.
Cervical polyps and cysts are abnormal growths on the cervix. These growths are usually small and are most often benign (non-cancerous). Polyps can be formed from different causes including chronic inflammation and an abnormal response to increased estrogen levels. When detected, polyps are most often removed to establish whether they are benign. Removal can often be done in the doctor’s office.
Cervical incompetence can occur during pregnancy and is the widening of the cervix long before the baby is due. This condition is fairly rare, occurring in about 1 in 100 pregnancies and accounts for almost 25% of miscarriages during the second trimester.
Cervical incompetence (also referred to as cervical weakness) can occur if the cervix has been previous damaged from a difficult birth, previous trauma to the cervix, or exposure to diethylstilbestrol (a synthetic, nonsteroidal form of estrogen that was prescribed to pregnant women between 1940 and 1971 to prevent miscarriage and premature labor).
Cervical incompetence can be detected during a pelvic exam or by ultrasound. A treatment that is sometimes used is a procedure called cerclage where the cervix is sewn closed to reinforce it. The procedure is generally performed in the third month of the pregnancy. The sutures are removed between weeks 36 and 38 to as not to interfere with labor. Like any surgical procedure, there are risks associated with cerclage that should be discussed with your doctor.
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Cervical cancer. Human bodies are made up of countless numbers of cells. There are stem cells, bone cells, blood cells, muscle cells, nerve cells, and many other different types of cells. Cells grow, reproduce, and then die. The genes that help cells to grow and divide are called oncogenes. The genes that help keep cell growth under control are called tumor suppressor genes. Human papillomavirus (HPV) contains two proteins that repress the tumor suppressor genes which, in some cases, can lead to cancer. That is not to say that anyone infected with HPV will get cancer; in fact, most do not and HPV will often go away without any treatment.
HPV is not the only cause of cervical cancer, but it is the main one. According to Dr. Nazia Munir, “There can be many different reasons why a pap smear may be abnormal. The most common is the human papillomavirus”. She also says that other STDs such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and herpes can be at the root of cervical cancer, and that yeast infections can also cause changes in cervical cells
Symptoms of cervical cancer include pain during sex, bleeding after menopause, heavier than usual menstrual bleeding, spotting, increased vaginal discharge, and persistent pelvic pain.
Cervical cancer, like other types of cancer, can be treated, particularly in its early stages. The specific treatment would be determined in consultation with a doctor.
Many cervical disorders are treatable and early detection is best done through regular pap smears. Pap smears can be uncomfortable and awkward, but they really are a good idea. Pap smears are usually done in conjunction with a pelvic examination and sometimes with a test for human papillomavirus (HPV). The frequency with which these tests should be determined by you and your doctor based on different factors such your age and risk factors.
There are other actions you can take to maintain cervical health:
- Apart from reducing the risk of an unwanted pregnancy, condoms are also effective protection against sexually transmitted diseases including HPV. Condoms will also protect you from other STDs such as Chlamydia and gonorrhea as well as HIV.
- Get tested for STDs. Pap smears are performed to examine the cells of the cervix to see if there is any indication of cervical cancer, but they do not detect herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea or other common STDs. Your doctor can perform a test specifically for STDs during a pelvic exam.
- Eat your fruit and veggies. Your mother was right – eat your fruit and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables contain many nutrients such as antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins, some of which are vital to a robust immune system. Fruits and vegetable high in vitamin C include citrus fruits, kiwis, berries, red and green peppers, and broccoli. Other vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables are winter squash, asparagus, papaya, apples, carrots, and dark green leafy vegetables.
- Quit smoking. Smoking can speed up the growth of cancer cells.
When to See a Doctor
There’s a great of overlap in the symptoms of the different cervical issues so just because you have some spotting or unusual discharge, don’t freak out – check it out. Many health conditions can be successfully treated and especially if you catch them early. If you have symptoms that concern you, your best bet is to discuss them with your doctor so that you get the appropriate tests and treatment.
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