There is no guaranteed way to prevent cervical cancer. However, by getting the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, if possible, and undergoing regular testing, a person can significantly reduce their risk. Using barrier methods of protection during sexual activity, avoiding smoking, and making certain dietary changes may also be beneficial.

A note about sex and gender

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The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that in 2022, approximately 4,280 females will die from cervical cancer in the United States.

Although it is not always possible to prevent cervical cancer, the ACS notes that getting regular tests and receiving the HPV vaccine are the most important steps a person can take to avoid this disease developing.

Testing can allow doctors to identify precancerous changes and provide early treatment. The vaccine helps prevent infection with HPV, which is a virus that can lead to cervical cancer.

This article looks in more detail at what a person can do to help minimize the risk of cervical cancer.

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The ACS advises that the best way to ensure that doctors find cervical cancer early is to undergo regular screening tests. A doctor can do an HPV test or a Pap test. Alternatively, they can do both together, which they will refer to as a co-test.

People aged 25–65 years with a cervix should request an HPV test from a doctor every 5 years or a Pap test every 3 years.

Doctors can perform both of these tests at their clinic or office.

A person should receive the result within 3 weeks.

HPV test

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), HPV is associated with 99% of cervical cancer cases.

HPV is an extremely common virus that people can contract through sexual contact. It is important to note that nearly all sexually active people contract HPV and that most cases do not lead to cancer. The immune system usually controls the HPV infection.

An HPV test can reveal cell changes that may lead to cervical cancer. This gives doctors a chance to treat the cells before they develop further.

PAP test

People sometimes refer to this test as a PAP smear. The test looks for precancerous changes in the cells in the cervix. These cells could become cancerous without treatment.

A healthcare professional will use an instrument called a speculum to widen the vagina and then use a swab to collect a sample from the cervix. They will send the cells to a laboratory for analysis.

How to get a cervical screening

A person can contact their local doctor’s office to inquire about cervical screening. Alternatively, they can make an appointment with Planned Parenthood here.

The Centers for Disease Control and Development (CDC) note that those with a low income or without insurance may qualify for free or low cost screening tests through its National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP).

A person can find out whether they qualify for NBCCEDP here.

Learn more

Learn more about cervical screening:

The CDC advises that, alongside screening, getting an HPV vaccine is the most important thing someone can do to prevent cervical cancer.

The HPV vaccine protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers.

Preteens aged 11–12 years and everyone under the age of 26 years should get the HPV vaccine. People may need two or three doses, depending on their age.

Although doctors do not typically recommend the vaccine for those older than 26 years, some people aged 27–45 years may choose to get the vaccine after consulting a doctor.

Some people may have heard reports about safety concerns relating to the Gardasil vaccine. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has concluded that the vaccine is safe and that its benefits outweigh any risks.

Learn more about the HPV vaccine.

How to get the vaccine

A person can get the HPV vaccine at their local clinic, health department, or Planned Parenthood health center.

According to Planned Parenthood, the average cost of a single dose is $250. However, many health insurance companies will cover the cost of the HPV vaccine for those who are eligible.

A person without insurance can ask a doctor or nurse for information on how to get the HPV vaccine at a lower cost.

The federally funded Vaccines for Children (VFC) program covers vaccine costs for children and teenagers who have no insurance or insufficient insurance.

The HPV infection spreads through sexual contact.

According to the National Cancer Institute, the risk of HPV infection is higher in females who became sexually active before the age of 18 years and in those who have had six or more sexual partners.

Using a barrier method of birth control, such as a condom or dental dam, helps protect against HPV infection.

However, it is important to note that a person can still get HPV from the areas that the condom or dental dam does not cover, such as the genital skin or the area around the anus.

Learn more

Learn more about barrier protection methods:

The CDC explains that smoking can cause different types of cancer, including cervical cancer.

Toxic substances in tobacco smoke can weaken the immune system, making it harder for the body to kill cancer cells. Additionally, these poisons can damage or change the cell’s DNA, causing a tumor to start developing.

A 2019 study also found that passive smoking and having a sexual partner who smokes may contribute to cervical cancer risk.

Nicotine and other substances in tobacco may pass to the cervix through semen, compromising the immune system and the body’s ability to defend itself against cancer.

Learn more

Learn more about smoking and cervical cancer:

The author of a 2019 review examined the dietary components that may protect against HPV and cervical cancer. They noted that the following can help protect against HPV infection:

  • antioxidants, such as vitamins A, C, and E, in fruits and vegetables
  • polyphenols, flavonoids, lycopene, and sulforaphane in plant foods and teas
  • folate, calcium, and vitamin D
  • nuts and legumes

Another study in China found that a low intake of certain nutrients — folate, niacin, and vitamins B6, C, and K — was associated with a higher risk of cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN).

CIN2 cells are moderately abnormal cells that are present on the surface of the cervix. These cells are not yet cancerous, but they can become cancerous.

In addition, research suggests that people should avoid:

Higher glycemic index (GI) foods

Research from 2020 notes that the consumption of low GI foods can play a role in preventing cervical cancer.

Inflammatory foods

A 2021 study found that consuming diets high in inflammatory foods, such as saturated fats and sugar, can increase the chance of bacterial vaginosis, which has an association with an increased risk of cervical cancer.

Learn more about whether diet influences cervical cancer risk.

Experts advise that regular screening may help prevent cervical cancer from developing or detect it in its early stages.

In addition, getting an HPV vaccine can protect people from contracting this common virus through sexual contact. HPV can lead to cervical cancer.

People can lower their risk of developing cervical cancer by using barrier protection methods during sexual activity and avoiding smoking.

Furthermore, eating a well-balanced, nutrient-dense diet can provide antioxidants to help the immune system protect against HPV.

To discover more evidence-based information and resources for cancer, visit our dedicated hub.