The two most important things you can do to prevent cervical cancer are to get the HPV vaccine if you are eligible, and to be tested regularly according to American Cancer Society (ACS) guidelines. These can be found in The American Cancer Society Guidelines for the Prevention and Early Detection of Cervical Cancer.
The most common form of cervical cancer starts with pre-cancerous changes and there are ways to stop this from developing. The first way is to find and treat pre-cancers before they become invasive cancers, and the second is to prevent the pre-cancers.
A well-proven way to prevent cervical cancer is to have screening tests. Screening is having tests to find conditions that may lead to cancers and can find pre-cancers before they can turn into invasive cancer. The Pap test (or Pap smear) and the human papillomavirus (HPV) test are specific tests used during screening for cervical cancer. These tests are done the same way. A health professional uses a special tool to gently scrape or brush the cervix to remove cells for testing. If a pre-cancer is found it can be treated, keeping it from turning into a cervical cancer.
The HPV test looks for infection by high-risk types of HPV that are more likely to cause pre-cancers and cancers of the cervix. There are certain HPV tests approved to be a primary HPV test and others approved as part of a co-test. The type you get most often depends on which test is available in your area.
The Pap test or smear is a procedure used to collect cells from the cervix so that they can be looked at closely in the lab to find cancer and pre-cancer. It's important to know that most invasive cervical cancers are found in women who have not had regular Pap tests. A Pap test can be done during a pelvic exam, but not all pelvic exams include a Pap test.
The result of the HPV test, along with your past test results, determines your risk of developing cervical cancer. If the test is positive, this could mean more follow-up visits, more tests to look for a pre-cancer or cancer, and sometimes a procedure to treat any pre-cancers that might be found.
It is best to talk to your healthcare provider about your screening test results in more detail to fully understand your risk of developing cervical cancer and next steps.
Based on your age, overall health, and personal risk for cervical cancer, there are some things that can be done that may prevent pre-cancers and conditions that lead to pre-cancers.
Vaccines are available that can help protect children and young adults against certain HPV infections. These vaccines protect against infection with the HPV types most commonly linked to cancer, as well as some types that can cause anal and genital warts.
These vaccines only work to prevent HPV infection − they will not treat an infection that is already there. That is why, to be most effective, the HPV vaccines should be given before a person becomes exposed to HPV (such as through sexual activity).
These vaccines help prevent pre-cancers and cancers of the cervix. Some HPV vaccines are also approved to help prevent other types of cancers and anal and genital warts.
The vaccines require a series of injections (shots). Side effects are usually mild. The most common ones are short-term redness, swelling, and soreness at the injection site. Rarely, a young person might faint shortly after the injection.
The ACS recommends:
It’s important to know that no vaccine provides complete protection against all cancer-causing types of HPV, so routine cervical cancer screening is still needed.
For more information on the vaccine and HPV, please see HPV Vaccines.
HPV is passed from one person to another during skin-to-skin contact with an infected area of the body. Although HPV can be spread during skin to skin contact − including vaginal, anal, and oral sex − sex doesn't have to occur for the infection to spread. All that is needed is skin-to-skin contact with an area of the body infected with HPV. This means that the virus can be spread without sex. It is even possible for a genital infection to spread through hand-to-genital contact.
Also, HPV infection seems to be able to spread from one part of the body to another. This means that an infection may start in the cervix and then spread to the vagina and vulva.
It can be very hard not to be exposed to HPV. It may be possible to prevent HPV infection by not allowing others to have contact with your anal or genital area, but even then there might be other ways to become infected that aren’t yet clear.
Limiting the number of sex partners and avoiding sex with people who have had many other sex partners may lower your risk of exposure to HPV. But again, HPV is very common, so having sexual activity with even one other person can put you at risk. Remember that someone can have HPV for years and still have no symptoms. So it's possible someone can have the virus and pass it on without knowing it.
Condoms (“rubbers”) provide some protection against HPV but they don’t completely prevent infection. One reason that condoms cannot protect completely is because they don’t cover every possible HPV-infected area of the body, such as skin of the genital or anal area. Still, condoms provide some protection against HPV, and they also help protect against HIV and some other sexually transmitted infections.
Not smoking is another important way to reduce the risk of cervical pre-cancer and cancer.
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Last Revised: July 30, 2020
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