The HPV vaccine is the only vaccine known to protect against cancer including cervical, vulva, vaginal, penile, and oropharyngeal cancers. HPV can be transmitted to the vagina and cervix through sexual activity. The best time to vaccinate is prior to sexual activity between the ages of 11-12 for boys and girls. However, if you did not receive the vaccine at a young age it is still beneficial to receive up to the age of 26, even if you’ve had an HPV infection or abnormal pap smear, as it can provide protection against strains you may not have been exposed to.
Pap smear testing is an important part of preventing cervical cancer because it can pick up early abnormal changes in the cells on your cervix that could progress to cancer if left untreated. Your initial pap smear should be performed at 21 years old and if the test is normal, repeated every three years until 30 years old. At age 30, you should receive a combined test including a Pap smear and high-risk HPV test to determine how frequently you should be screened in your thirties.
Contraception is not “one size fits all.” The wonderful thing about contraception of our day and age is that we have many varieties to fit individual lifestyle needs. Many younger women are choosing longer acting methods such as an IUD (hormonal or non-hormonal contraceptive device placed in the uterus) or implant (4 mm progesterone rod implanted in the arm) versus the more traditional birth control pill, patch, injection, or ring. IUDs available today have a smaller diameter and an extremely low number of hormones that work very well for adolescents. One appealing feature of a long acting method for young women is that you don’t have to remember to take a daily pill or change a patch–once the device is in place, there is no work on your part. The key is to talk with your gynecologist so that you can understand the pros and cons of all methods and choose the method best for you and your lifestyle.
Finding a gynecologist that you are comfortable being open and honest with is the most important component. Friends and families are often great sources for recommendations. Ask people you are close to if they have a gynecologist that they have a good relationship with. You can find provider profiles on hospital and health center websites and will be able to see their training and interests. You can also search for a gynecologist who has clinical interests and specializes in something that might be an issue for you like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), pelvic pain, or sexual dysfunction.
Education and protection is key! It is important to educate yourself about prevention (read about the HPV vaccine, talk to your health care provider, etc.) Have open and honest communication with your gynecologist about your sexual health and relationships so that you can be aware of diseases and risks in order to have healthy relationships.
For more information on women’s health, turn to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center by visiting www.bidmc.org.
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