The cervix is a part of the female reproductive system that connects the vagina to the uterus. It plays a major role in the menstrual cycle, fertility, pregnancy, and childbirth.

This article describes what the cervix is, including its structure and functions. It also lists some medical conditions that can affect the cervix and their associated symptoms and treatments.

Finally, it provides some tips on maintaining cervical health and advice on when to see a doctor.

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The cervix is a fibromuscular organ that forms a canal between the lower, narrow end of the uterus and the vagina.

The cervix is typically 2–3 centimeters (cm) in length, though the size may differ according to a person’s age, genetics, and whether they have given birth. Approximately half of the cervix sits inside the vaginal canal.

Click on the BodyMap below to interact with a 3D model of the cervix.

The cervix has multiple functions. These are listed below.

Protecting the reproductive organs

The lining of the cervix contains glands that produce and release mucus. This mucus prevents bacteria from spreading into the other organs of the reproductive system.

Menstruation

During menstruation, the cervix opens slightly, allowing menstrual blood to flow out of the uterus.

Fertility

During ovulation, cervical mucus thins to allow any potential sperm access to the uterus. This allows sperm to reach and fertilize an egg, thereby enabling pregnancy.

Pregnancy

During pregnancy, cervical mucus is thick. This thick mucus forms a plug in the cervical canal, which prevents bacteria and viruses from entering the uterus and harming the growing fetus. Abnormalities with the cervical plug increase the risk of preterm delivery.

During pregnancy, the cervix also becomes firmer and stronger, which helps to protect the fetus until birth.

Childbirth

During childbirth, the cervix dilates, enabling the delivery of the baby. The cervix can dilate to 10 cm, which doctors consider fully dilated.

During pregnancy, the cervix maintains its shape. During childbirth, the cervix becomes more flexible. However, medical professionals do not fully understand cervix’s physical changes during pregnancy and childbirth.

Certain conditions may affect the cervix. These conditions and their associated symptoms and treatments are:

HPV infection

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus that causes HPV, which is a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

HPV is the most common STI in the United States. In 2018, approximately 43 million people had HPV. Most of these people were in their late teens and early 20s.

There are several types of HPV. Some types increase the risk of genital warts, and other types increase the chance of developing cervical cancer if a healthcare professional does not catch it early.

A person may have HPV and not experience any symptoms. Therefore, it is important to have regular cervical screening tests to check for abnormalities related to HPV.

There is no cure for HPV. It is important to use barrier contraception, such as a condom, during sexual intercourse to reduce the risk of transmission.

Learn more about condoms and how to use them safely here.

Treatment

There is no treatment for the virus. However, treatments are available for the health problems that HPV can cause. For example, doctors may treat genital warts using prescription medications.

An abnormal cervical screening test may indicate that a person has cervical precancer. This means that the cell changes are not cancerous, but they may develop into cancer without treatment.

A healthcare professional may perform a loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP). According to Planned Parenthood, this involves using a wire loop to remove abnormal cells from the cervix.

Alternatively, a healthcare professional may perform a cone biopsy, another surgical procedure to remove abnormal cells from the cervix.

Treatment for cervical cancer may require surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy.

Learn more about HPV here.

Pelvic inflammatory disease

Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is an infection of the female reproductive organs, which can result in the following symptoms:

PID typically develops when bacteria from the vagina or cervix enter the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. Various types of bacteria may cause PID, including those responsible for the following STIs:

Less commonly, PID may occur due to bacteria that ordinarily live harmlessly inside the vagina making their way through the cervix and into the reproductive organs.

Without treatment, PID may cause fertility problems and can increase the risk of a future ectopic pregnancy. An ectopic pregnancy is where the embryo develops outside the inner lining of the uterus.

Learn more about infertility in males and females here.

Treatment

Doctors typically prescribe antibiotics to treat PID. While this treatment usually clears the infection, it does not reverse any potential scarring that the infection has already caused.

Anyone who experiences PID symptoms should contact a doctor for a diagnosis and appropriate treatment as soon as possible.

If symptoms of PID do not resolve, surgery may be an option.

Learn more about PID and endometriosis here.

Cervical insufficiency

According to March of Dimes, the cervix remains firm and closed until the third trimester of pregnancy. The cervix then becomes shorter, thinner, and softer so that the baby can pass through the birth canal during labor and childbirth.

Cervical insufficiency is the medical term for when the cervix dilates too early in the pregnancy, typically without contractions or pain. This can cause or contribute to premature birth or miscarriage.

Some women with cervical insufficiency do not experience symptoms early on in pregnancy. If symptoms do occur, they may include the following:

  • mild discomfort or spotting between 14 and 20 weeks of pregnancy
  • a sensation of pelvic pressure
  • new back pain
  • mild abdominal cramps
  • changes to vaginal discharge
  • light vaginal bleeding

Learn all about the pregnancy trimesters here.

Treatment

According to March of Dimes, the most common treatment for cervical insufficiency is a cerclage. This is a procedure in which a doctor sews a stitch around the cervix to keep it closed. This often helps to prevent premature birth.

March of DImes also indicates that a person may receive a cerclage as early as 13 or 14 weeks into their pregnancy or if they are in labor, and a doctor will remove the stitch at around 37 weeks.

A cerclage may not be suitable for people whose cervix is shorter than 2.5 cm or those pregnant with twins.

In some cases of cervical insufficiency, a doctor may also prescribe the hormone progesterone to help prevent premature birth.

A healthcare professional may also provide a person with a pessary. This is a plastic device that a person can insert into the vagina.

Cervical polyps

Cervical polyps are small growths inside the cervix. Most are benign, meaning they rarely cause cancer.

Cervical polyps often do not cause any symptoms. In some cases, they may cause vaginal bleeding that occurs at the following times:

According to a 2021 article, cervical polyps often occur during a female’s reproductive years, after the age of 20. They rarely occur in young women who have not yet experienced their first menstrual cycle.

Females are at increased risk of developing cervical polyps during pregnancy because of an increase in the hormone estrogen.

Learn more about what causes vaginal bleeding between periods here.

Treatment

Most cervical polyps are benign, meaning they are not a risk factor for cervical cancer. Doctors typically only recommend removing polyps if they bleed, are particularly large, or have an abnormal appearance.

To remove a polyp, a doctor will use one of the following methods:

Learn all about a polypectomy, a treatment to removed polyps here.

Cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that affects the cervix. This disease was the leading cause of cancer-related death among women in the U.S.

Doctors can now detect and treat this type of cancer much earlier using PAP smear tests. Early detection and treatment can significantly improve survival rates.

Possible symptoms of cervical cancer include:

Learn more about cervical cancer here.

Treatment

The treatment for cervical cancer depends on the type of cervical cancer and how far it has progressed. Possible treatment options include:

  • surgery, which may involve removing the tumor or removing part or all of the cervix
  • chemotherapy, which involves using oral or intravenous (IV) medications to kill cancer cells or stop them from reproducing
  • radiation therapy, which uses high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells

Learn more about survival rates for cervical cancer here.

Maintaining a healthy cervix decreases the risk of cervical and related conditions and is important for overall health.

Some tips that can help a female maintain a healthy cervix include:

  • seeing a gynecologist at least once a year, or more if the doctor recommends
  • getting a cervical screening at least every couple of years, or more if the doctor recommends
  • undergoing regular cervical screening
  • using a condom during intercourse
  • considering getting the HPV vaccine to protect against certain strains of HPV

It is important to note that using condoms does not eliminate the chance of contracting HPV entirely.

Learn more about when to undergo cervical screening for HPV here.

Individuals with a cervix should contact a doctor right away if they experience any of the following symptoms:

  • unusual abdominal or pelvic pain
  • changes to the menstrual cycle
  • vaginal bleeding that is not due to the menstrual cycle
  • unusual vaginal discharge

The cervix is a part of the female reproductive system. It plays a crucial role in the menstrual cycle, fertility, pregnancy, and childbirth. It also helps to protect the female reproductive organs from infectious bacteria and viruses.

Several conditions can affect the cervix. Some are relatively benign, while others can be serious and even life threatening.

Some potentially serious conditions may not cause any symptoms until complications develop. Therefore, it is important to have regular cervical screening and PAP smears to help detect any issues.

A person should also see their doctor or gynecologist if they experience concerning symptoms, such as abdominal or pelvic pain, changes to their menstrual cycle, or abnormal vaginal discharge.

Most cervical conditions have a more favorable outcome if a person detects and treats them early.