There are more than 100 types of HPV infection and other risks that can increase your chances of vaginal cancer. But there are certain precautionary measures to can take to protect yourself.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on July 23, 2019. It has since been updated.
Vaginal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the vagina. Few things that influence a woman's risk of vaginal cancer include age and being exposed to the drug DES (diethylstilbestrol) before birth, according to Cancer.gov. One of the signs of vaginal cancer is pain and abnormal vaginal bleeding. Other signs include discharge not related to menstrual periods, pain during sexual intercourse, pain in the pelvic area, a lump in the vagina, pain when urinating, and constipation.
There are multiple tests with which one can find out if a woman has it. While there is no known way to prevent vaginal cancer, there are certain risk factors you can avoid to reduce the risk of getting it. You can avoid the risk factors that we already know about and treat any vaginal pre-cancers.
Doctors recommend vaccination against HPV (Human papillomavirus) to reduce the risk of gynecological cancer. Almost 14 million Americans get infected with HPV every year and almost all sexually active women are infected with some type of HPV during their lives. Most have no symptoms as the immune system removes it from the body within a few years, according to NYU Langone Health. The infection causes changes in the squamous cells that line the vagina. It increases the risk of developing a form of vaginal cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. The precancerous changes are called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia, or dysplasia.
Here are four things that can reduce the risk of vaginal cancer:
Women who don't smoke are less likely to develop cancers, such as those of the lungs, mouth, throat, bladder, kidneys, and several other organs, according to Cancer.org. Smoking increases the risk of developing vaginal cancer, according to NYU Langone Health.
Practice safe sex by using condoms, which provide protection against human papillomavirus (HPV). However, condoms aren't 100% safe since they don't shield you from every possible HPV-infected part of the body, such as the skin on the genital or anal area. They can only cover some parts of the body and give you protection from it. It also protects from HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, according to Cancer. org.
Using other barrier methods during vaginal, oral, and anal sex can also reduce the risk, says NYU Langone Health. HIV also increases the chances of vaginal cancer.
There are more than 100 types of HPV and there are vaccines for only some of them. Some strains of the virus—including HPV 16 and HPV 18—are connected to vaginal cancer, according to NYU Langone Health. They will prevent some infections but won't treat an existing one. These vaccines are most effective when administered before a person is exposed to HPV i.e. before someone is sexually active. These prevent vaginal cancers and pre-cancers too. They can also prevent other cancers, as well as anal and genital warts.
It is not clear why but HPV infections occur mainly in younger women and it is less common if you're over 30. It can be spread by skin-to-skin contact with an infected area. It can be spread during sexual activity – including vaginal, anal, and oral sex. However, it is not limited to sexual activity. It can also be spread through genital-to-genital contact. It can also spread through hand-to-genital contact.