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Causes Cervical Dysplasia

Doctors have identified risk factors that increase a woman's chances for developing this condition.

Women between the ages of 25 and 35 are most susceptible to cervical dysplasia. [© Shutterstock, 2010]
© Shutterstock, 2010
Women between the ages of 25 and 35 are most susceptible to cervical dysplasia.

Though doctors are unsure of exactly what causes cervical dysplasia, they have identified risk factors that increase a womans chances for developing this condition. Cervical dysplasia is a medical term used when abnormal cells are detected on the surface of the cervix. The severity of the condition is graded on a scale from mild to severe, depending on the number of abnormal cells found on the cervix. These cells are not cancer, but can be a sign of a precancerous condition that could develop into cancer. However, every woman diagnosed with cervical dysplasia does not develop cervical cancer.


Cervical dysplasia is not usually accompanied by any symptoms, although some women may notice bleeding after intercourse.

Common Risk Factors for Cervical Dysplasia

This condition occurs primarily in women ages 25 to 35 years old. Women who become sexually active before the age of 18 or give birth before the age of 16 increase their risk of developing cervical dysplasia.

Other factors that may increase a womans risk of cervical dysplasia include smoking, taking birth control pills for more than five years, multiple sex partners, and having a sex partner whose former partner had cervical dysplasia. Poor nutrition may also play a role, including deficiencies in folate, vitamins C, A and E, selenium and beta-carotene.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases Linked to Cervical Dysplasia

One of the major sexually transmitted diseases linked to cervical dysplasia is Human Papillomavirus, also known as HPV. These are the viruses that cause genital warts. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one strain of HPV (HPV type 16) accounts for 50 percent of cervical cancer and high-grade cervical dysplasia cases. When HPV types 18, 31 and 45 are added to the calculations, they account for 80 percent of cervical cancers. Since HPV plays a part in a large portion of cervical dysplasia cases, risk factors for HPV often overlap risk factors for cervical dysplasia, such as multiple sexual partners and sexual activity at an early age.

Women who have had one or more sexually transmitted diseases are at higher risk, and cervical dysplasia is often seen in women with human immunodeficiency virus, commonly known as HIV.

Increased Risk from Exposure to Diethylstilbestrol

Between the years of 1938 and 1971, diethylstilbestrol, also known as DES, was prescribed to pregnant women in an attempt to prevent miscarriages. The use of this medication was discontinued when it was found that it was not only ineffective in preventing miscarriages, but also interfered with the development of the reproductive system of the fetus. As a result, women who were born to mothers who used DES have been found to be at higher risk for multiple abnormalities in relation to their reproductive systems. The National Cancer Institute indicates that some studies have linked DES exposure during prenatal development with an increased risk of developing abnormal cells in the tissue of the cervix and vagina.

Prevention and Early Detection of Cervical Dysplasia

No one method is available to prevent cervical dysplasia. However, women can take steps to reduce the risk factors within their control. Sexually transmitted diseases, and other risky sexual behavior, account for the majority of cervical dysplasia and cervical cancer cases. This makes safe sex practices a simple way to reduce the risk of this condition. Barrier contraception, such as condoms, and limiting sexual partners will lessen the risk of contracting HIV and HPV. The National Institute of Health recommends waiting until after the age of 18 to begin sexual activity, practicing monogamy, and using condoms to lower the risk of cervical dysplasia. A vaccine for four of the most common types of HPV is also available and recommended for girls and women between the ages of 9 and 26 years old.

Women who were exposed to DES in the womb should start getting regular Pap smears after their first menstrual cycle, at the age of 14, or when they become sexually active, whichever comes first. All other women should begin having Pap smears by age 21 or when they become sexually active. A regular Pap smear is the only way to detect cervical dysplasia early and prevent the condition from possibly progressing into cervical cancer. Generally, cervical dysplasia that is detected early and treated can be cured. However, if left untreated, 30 to 35 percent of cervical dysplasia cases could progress into cancer.

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