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Your cervix is the lower part of your uterus that connects it to your vagina. It looks like a donut with a tiny hole in the middle — that hole lets period blood out and sperm in. The cervix also stretches open (dilates) during birth. You may be able to touch it if you put your fingers deep in your vagina. It feels squishy but a little firm, kind of like the tip of your nose.

It’s important to take care of your cervix and take steps to prevent cervical cancer. Here’s how to keep your cervix healthy and cancer-free.

Know the basics about HPV

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a super common sexually transmitted infection. It spreads easily from skin-to-skin sexual contact — when your vulva, vagina, cervix, penis, or anus touches someone else’s genitals, mouth, or throat.

Almost everybody who ever has sexual contact will get HPV at least once in their life, and it’s usually harmless. Most of the time the infection causes no symptoms and goes away by itself, so you might not even know you had it. But a few strains of HPV can eventually cause cancer in some people — these are called “high-risk HPV.” The most common type of cancer that HPV leads to is cervical cancer, but HPV is also linked to cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth, and throat. 

Other strains of HPV can cause genital warts — these are called “low-risk HPV.” Low-risk HPV does NOT cause cancer. Genital warts can be annoying, but they don’t lead to cancer or cause any serious health problems. 

There’s no cure for HPV. But there are ways to help protect yourself from HPV, and treatments that can help prevent cancer if you do have high-risk HPV.

Get the HPV vaccine

The HPV vaccine — known by the brand name Gardasil 9 — is a safe and effective way to protect against the types of HPV that cause cervical cancer, genital and throat cancers, and genital warts. 

Anybody of any gender, from ages 9–45, can get the HPV vaccine. But it’s most effective when you get it years before you start having sexual contact, which is why it’s a good idea if you’re a parent or guardian to consider getting your child vaccinated around ages 11–12. 

You can get the HPV vaccine at many Planned Parenthood health centers, as well as from other health clinics, health departments, and private nurses and doctors.

Get Pap/HPV tests to screen for cervical cancer

Regular testing can find high-risk HPV and abnormal cell changes in your cervix before they cause problems, so you can get treatment to stay healthy. Wellness exams often include HPV tests and/or Pap tests to do just that. Talk to your doctor to figure out which tests make sense for you, and when you should get screened. Learn more about Pap and HPV tests.

Pelvic exams — which are part of getting Pap and HPV tests — can be hard for anyone who fears going to the gyno, including trans men and nonbinary people with a uterus who may worry about dealing with insensitive health care providers. Check out these resources on feeling safe at a sexual health check-ups and trans health care.

Go to any follow-up appointments your doctor recommends

If you get an abnormal Pap or positive HPV test result, it might be tempting to ignore it. But remember: Follow-up testing and treatment is usually not a big deal, and it’s important to address any problems before they get serious. In most cases, cervical cancer is preventable if your doctor catches the warning signs early and gives you the treatment you need. 

So if your doctor wants you to come in for more testing or treatment, make sure you go as soon as possible.

Have safer sex

Using condoms or internal condoms during vaginal and anal sex, and dental dams during oral sex, you can help lower your chances of getting and spreading HPV. 

Bonus: Condoms and dental dams also help prevent other STDs, like chlamydia and gonorrhea. Those infections can cause cervicitis, which is inflammation of the cervix. Talk with a nurse or doctor, like the ones at your local Planned Parenthood, if you have symptoms like pain with sex or vaginal discharge that’s not normal for you. 

Get tested for sexually transmitted infections

STDs can lead to serious problems if you don’t get treatment. And most of the time, STDs don’t cause any symptoms, so getting tested is the only way to know for sure whether you have one.

Be sure to get an STD test if you: think you have an STD, your partner has an STD, or you had unprotected sexual contact. Even if you always have safer sex and feel totally fine, it’s a good idea to get tested at least once a year.

STD tests are usually quick and painless. You can get an STD test during your regular wellness exam or at the same time as a Pap or HPV test — but most doctors don’t do STD tests automatically, so make sure you ask. Your doctor can help you figure out what tests you need and when you need them based on your personal situation. 

Stop smoking

Smokers are twice as likely to get cervical cancer than non-smokers. Scientists think this is because smoking damages the cells in your cervix and makes it easier for cancer to develop. Smoking also weakens your immune system and makes your body less able to fight HPV infections. Quitting smoking can be tough, but you can do it. Check out Smokefree.gov for tips on how to quit.

Tags: STDs, Pap tests, safer sex, HPV, HPV vaccine, genital warts, STIs, cervical health, HPV tests