Protect yourself from cervical cancer

Published in Medicinewise Living

Date published: About this date

Health and medicines information in this article may have changed since the date published. This information does not replace advice from a health professional.

Every year 700 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and over 200 die from it. We can all protect ourselves against its leading cause — the human papillomavirus (HPV).

When it comes to guarding against HPV infection and cervical cancer, prevention is definitely better than cure — here are some steps you can take.


HPV infection is common — 4 in every 5 people will have a genital HPV infection during their lifetime.

But you can begin to protect yourself before you’re in contact with the virus by getting vaccinated — boys can take part as well as girls, which will further help to prevent an infection that can be passed on to someone else during sexual contact.

Watch the video produced by the Australian Government Department of Health, which explains how the HPV vaccine works for males and females to help protect against HPV-related cancers and disease.

Two vaccines available in Australia (Gardasil and Cervarix) help to protect against HPV strains that cause 70–80% of cervical cancers. Vaccination can be given to males aged 9–26 years and females aged 9–45 years. Find out more about who can receive the HPV vaccine.

HPV vaccination will work best if it’s given before you become sexually active and exposed to the virus. All 12- and 13-year-old girls and boys in Australia are vaccinated for free, generally through school programs. In 2014, boys aged 14 and 15 years will also be able to get the vaccine at school through a catch-up program.

The three doses of the vaccine are given usually over 6 months.

5 facts about HPV

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a wart virus spread by direct, skin-to-skin contact during all types of sexual activity with someone who has the virus.
  • Over 100 different types (or ‘strains’) of HPV exist. Only a few cause cancer of the cervix. Some can infect the genital area of females and males to cause other types of cancer and genital warts.
  • HPV doesn’t often cause symptoms so you may not be aware you have an infection.
  • Genital HPV infection is very common but most of the time your body will clear the virus without it causing disease.
  • HPV sometimes stays in the body for years to cause cell changes that may turn into cancer or genital warts.

Protect yourself

You can’t rely on just vaccination to protect against cervical cancer for life. HPV vaccines don’t cover every type of virus that can cause genital warts or cancers. You’re not protected either against any viruses in the vaccine you were infected with before vaccination.

Have regular Pap tests

Whether you’re vaccinated or not, all women aged 18 to 70 years who’ve ever had sex will need to continue having a Pap test (or Pap smear) every 2 years to check for cervical cancer. Not only because vaccination doesn’t provide 100% protection, but a Pap test can pick up early changes in the cells of your cervix before they turn cancerous.   

Don’t become one of the 9 in every 10 women diagnosed with cervical cancer who’ve never had a Pap test or not had them regularly. Regular Pap tests save more than 1,200 Australian women each year from cervical cancer and when it’s detected early most women are cured.

Be proactive

Have your vaccinations and Pap tests when they’re recommended for you — don’t hold off until you start noticing symptoms or health problems.   

While most women who become infected with HPV won’t develop cervical cancer, you can’t usually tell if you have an infection. Most cell changes in the cervix don’t cause symptoms either, and the only way to know if cell changes have occurred is to have a Pap test regularly.

Talk to your health professional

The chance of a vaccine or Pap test causing you serious harm is extremely small — and they are less harmful than the alternative of getting a disease like cervical cancer.

Nevertheless, if you have or have ever had a reaction to a vaccine, or are worried about the effects of having a Pap test, talk to your doctor or the person giving the vaccine to ensure you’re treated quickly and safely.

Vaccine side effects

Most vaccine side effects are mild. At least 1 in every 100 people given the HPV vaccine experience common side effects, which may include soreness, redness and swelling at the injection site, fever, mild headache, mild nausea, muscle or joint pain, or tiredness.   

Severe side effects are less common. Fainting, sometimes with shaking or stiffness, has been reported rarely after HPV vaccination, mostly among teenagers and young adults. Serious allergic reactions or anaphylaxis are extremely rare and are generally experienced by fewer than one in a million people after a vaccination.   

You can report possible side effects and contribute to national medicine safety efforts by calling the Adverse Medicines Events (AME) Line on 1300 134 237 from anywhere in Australia (Monday–Friday, 9am–5pm).

Pap tests are usually pain free

Pap tests can be uncomfortable but they shouldn’t hurt. If you feel any pain while having the test, tell your doctor, Pap test nurse or gynaecologist straight away.   

You should also see your doctor as soon as possible if you ever get abnormal bleeding, discharge or pain. These are unlikely to be due to a Pap test but are sometimes signs of cervical cancer.

Get more information on vaccines and immunisation from the NPS MedicineWise website, or check out the National Immunisation Program schedule for details on HPV vaccination and other vaccines you may need.