January is cervical health awareness month and chances are that you haven’t given your cervix the attention it deserves. Most women know that they need to go for their pap smears, but there are so much more that you need to know about your cervix.
What is a cervix?
The cervix is the lower portion of the uterus. It is considered as a seperate anatomical structure to the uterus since it is so distinct from the uterus histologically. The cervix is 2-3 cm long and cylindrical in shape. The canal that runs through the cervix connects the uterus and the vagina, acting as a gateway between them. The opening to the uterus is called the internal os, and the opening to the vagina is called the external os.
What is the function of the cervix?
The main function of the cervix is to facilitate the passage of sperm into the uterus after sex and some forms of arteficial insemination. The cervix produces cervical mucus that changes during the menstrual cycle as your hormones change. Around the time of ovulation, when estrogen levels are high, the mucus is thin and watery (almost like a egg white consistency) to allow sperm to enter the uterus. At other times in the cycle the mucus is thick and more acidic due to the effects of the hormone progesterone. This “infertile” mucus acts as a barrier to keep the sperm from entering the uterus (several contraceptives work by increasing the thickness of the cervical mucus). This thick mucus also help keep the upper female reproductive tract sterile, preventing pathogens to enter the uterus.
What can go wrong with the cervix?
Cervicitis is inflammation and infection of the cervix. The most common cause of cervicitis is sexual transmitted infections such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea. Most women with cervicitis will not have any symptoms but it can cause pelvic pain, an abnormal vaginal discharge of bleeding after sex. A doctor will be able to identify signs of cervicitis by doing a speculum examination and special tests will be able to identify particular bacteria. Cervicitis can be treated with antibiotics when the cause is bacterial.
– Cervical cancer
Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among women in South African after breast cancer. According to the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), 1 in every 42 women will have cervical cancer in their lives. Cervical cancer is nearly always caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, a very common sexual transmitted infection. Having regular pap smears can detect abnormal cells in the cervix that could develop into cervical cancer. Early diagnosis and treatment of pre-cancerous lesions prevents up to 80% of cervical cancers.
Contact one of our doctors to book your pap smear or for a consultation if you are worried about the health of your cervix.
Written by Dr Jireh Serfontein
Head of My Sexual Health Pretoria