Causes & Symptoms

Macmillan Cancer Support

Certain things called risk factors may increase the risk of developing cervical cancer. Having a risk factor does not mean you will get cancer. And not having a risk factor does not mean that you will not get it.

HPV and cervical cancer

The main risk factor for cervical cancer is an infection called the human papilloma virus (HPV). There are more than 100 types of this virus. Some types of HPV can affect the cervix. The types that cause abnormal cell changes in the cervix are called high-risk HPV.

Usually, the body’s immune system gets rid of the infection naturally. There are no symptoms and often the virus does not cause damage. Most people will never know they had it.

In some people, the immune system does not get rid of the infection and the virus stays in the body for longer. We do not know exactly why this is. If the cervix is affected by HPV for a long time, the virus can cause damage that may eventually cause cancer.

HPV is very common and most people are infected with it at some point. It can affect all sexual orientations and anyone who has ever been sexually active. This includes people in a long-term relationship with one partner. HPV may still affect you even if you have not been sexually active for some years.

The virus can live on the skin around the whole genital area. It passes easily from person to person during any type of sexual contact, including skin-to-skin genital contact, or sharing sex toys. Using a condom or other barrier contraception may reduce your risk of HPV infection, but it does not offer complete protection.

Cervical cancer itself is not infectious. You cannot catch cancer or pass it on to other people. The NHS offers a vaccine to children between the ages of 11 and 13 to prevent HPV.

Contraceptive pill

If you take the contraceptive pill for more than five years, this may increase your risk of developing cervical cancer. Usually, the benefits of taking the pill outweigh the risks.

Symptoms of cervical cancer

Very early-stage cervical cancer may not cause any symptoms. It is usually found and treated because of cervical screening tests. Common symptoms of cervical cancer can include:

  • heavier periods than you normally have
  • vaginal bleeding between periods
  • vaginal bleeding after sex
  • vaginal bleeding after the menopause (after you have stopped having periods).

Other symptoms include:

  • a smelly vaginal discharge
  • urine infections that keep coming back
  • pain in the lower tummy or back.

Very early-stage cervical cancer may not cause any symptoms. It is usually found and treated because of cervical screening tests (this includes a smear test).

If you get symptoms between your regular cervical screening appointments, do not wait for your next appointment. Talk to your GP or practice nurse and get the symptoms checked. These symptoms can be embarrassing, but your GP or practice nurse will understand.

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