January is Cervical Health Awareness Month – so if you see teal and white ribbons this time of year, they are intended to raise awareness of cervical cancer and cervical health in general. If you are trying for a baby, you want to be especially aware of conditions that could impact your reproductive health – and your family planning efforts. To that end, here are some issues related to cervical health that you should be aware of, how they can be detected, and how they may affect fertility in women.
HPV and Cervical Cancer
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a term that describes a family of more than 200 viruses, many of which can be spread through sexual contact. HPV is the cause of nearly all cases of cervical cancer – in fact, two forms of HPV cause nearly 70% of cervical cancers. Most HPV infections clear up after a year or two, though some infections linger for much longer. However, it can take 10 to 30 years following an infection before cervical cancer develops.
Cervical cancer can be detected by a pap test. Regular testing can detect precancerous cells or small tumors to allow for treatment. Abnormal results on a pap test may not always indicate cervical cancer. Your doctor may want to perform more tests to rule out other conditions.
It’s important to know that treatment for cervical cancer can potentially affect fertility. If the condition is detected while still in the precancerous stage, treatment can involve removing the affected cells through surgery or even freezing and destroying the tissue. These procedures can impact the production of cervical mucus, making it harder for sperm to enter the uterus, or weaken the cervix, potentially leading to miscarriage. If left untreated, tumors can develop that may require a hysterectomy.
Cervicitis is inflammation of the cervix, which often comes from sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia and gonorrhea. It is possible for the inflammation of cervicitis to spread to other surrounding tissue in a condition known as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). PID is the most common source of fertility problems connected to sexually transmitted infections. About 1 in 8 women who develop PID have trouble getting pregnant.
The underlying infections can be treated with antibiotics, though strains of gonorrhea can become resistant to the drugs. Pelvic inflammatory disease itself can be treated with antibiotics also, if cervicitis progresses into the broader disease.
Cervicitis can be diagnosed in a few ways. Your doctor may perform a bimanual pelvic examination, where they examine the cervix with a gloved hand. Abnormal results of a pap test may indicate infection instead of cancer. A culture taken from your cervical mucus may also reveal the presence of an infection.
Cervical polyps are noncancerous growths in the cervix. They are often associated with chronic inflammation of the cervix or it may be an abnormal response to elevated levels of estrogen which occur at various points in a woman’s cycle. In most cases, polyps do not present with any symptoms, though in some cases, the patient may develop very heavy periods, bleeding between periods, or white or yellow mucus. If a polyp grows large enough, it can actually block the cervix, limiting fertility by physically blocking sperm from entering.
A doctor can detect cervical polyps during a pelvic examination. A biopsy can then determine whether the growths are benign polyps or cancerous tumors. Smaller polyps can be removed by gently twisting them off with a special instrument called a polyp forceps, while larger ones may require surgical removal.
The cervix plays an important role in fertility in women, as the gateway for sperm to enter and make their way to the egg. Cervical health is important to any woman, but it is especially important when you are trying for a baby. This month, consider asking your doctor if there are any steps you can take to ensure your cervix is healthy. If you want more tips or information about improving fertility, follow us on Facebook and Instagram, or sign up for our newsletter below.