OB/GYNs on the ins and outs of this common virus.
It’s time to talk about the elephant in the room: HPV. You likely have it, have had it, or know someone who has it. In fact, about 80 percent of sexually active people have or have had HPV. Yet, people don’t talk about the virus, and when diagnosed, most typically do not know where to turn. So we must ask ourselves: How can something so ubiquitous be such a controversial conversation topic?
To better understand what exactly HPV is, why we get it, and how we can treat it, we consulted with two professionals: Dr. Jessica Shepherd, OB/GYN and Ceek Women’s Health Ambassador, and OB/GYN and Hugh & Grace medical advisory board member Dr. Kathleen Valenton.
To understand how HPV affects our bodies, we must first understand what exactly HPV is. Dr. Shepherd explains, “Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus that is actually the most common viral infection of the reproductive tract. Most sexually active women and men will be infected at some point in their lives,” which is why you and your closest friends most likely already have or have had the virus.
HPV is not a one-size-fits-all virus. There are over 100 strains of HPV that fit into two different categories: low-risk and high-risk. Low-risk strains typically present themselves as genital warts on the vulva or labia. High-risk strains present themselves on the cervix and can only be detected during a pap smear. For those worried about cervical cancer, high-risk strains of HPV are the ones to watch. Dr. Valenton explains, “There are 14 ‘high-risk’ strains that can potentially cause cancer. They are: 16, 18, 31, 33, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 56, 58, 59, 66, and 68. Types 16 and 18 are responsible for the majority of cervical cancer.”
Dr. Valenton adds, “HPV 16, in particular, can cause throat cancer [and] is also implicated in anal cancer.” Thus, people with HPV 16 should certainly also see an ENT and colorectal physician regularly.
Although this may sound frightening, you should not worry just yet. If you have been diagnosed with a low-grade abnormality, Dr. Valenton explains, “Low- and high-risk refer to the type of HPV strain. Low- and high-grade refers to the degree to which the high-risk strains have changed the cellular structure.” Although a low-grade abnormality can eventually lead to cancer, it also can go away on its own. In fact, according to the CDC, 90 percent of low-grade abnormalities go away on their own. Additionally, a person can live with a low-grade abnormality for years before it turns into anything too serious.
Cause & Prevention
So how can one contract HPV? The answer is pretty simple: by having sex, and that includes oral and anal. HPV transmits via skin-to-skin contact, meaning that even if a condom is used properly, the skin contact around a condom can still transmit the virus from person to person. However, this does not change the fact that you should always use a condom since condoms still cover a great portion of skin contact. Dr. Valenton states, “Using condoms can help minimize exposure to other strains while you are busy fighting the one you have.”
As far as other preventative measures go, Dr. Valenton explains, “The main precaution we take to avoid contracting HPV is to get vaccinated.” The caveat is that it only protects against nine cancer-causing strains of HPV, which is why you can have HPV even if you were vaccinated. However, the vaccine itself protects against most high-risk strains that can lead to cancer, which is why it is critical to get the shot before becoming sexually active.
Additionally, Dr. Shepherd recommends limiting your number of sexual partners. However, it is important to note that even if you only have one partner in your life, if they’ve had a partner before you, you can still contract HPV. It’s that common.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for this virus. But do not let this deter you from maintaining your yearly gynecology appointment; Dr. Shepherd explains, “There are many management plans that an OB/GYN can help with if there [are] any cervical abnormalities on the PAP and HPV CO-TESTING. It is important to [start these tests] at the age of 21. Both tests are much more valuable after the age of 30.” It is critical to monitor the progression or dissipation of your HPV, so make sure to visit your doc as often as they recommend.
If your HPV progresses to a high-grade state, there is a procedure that can help rid your body of the cells’ growth. Dr. Valenton explains, “A more aggressive minor surgical procedure that can be curative is a LEEP procedure. This stands for Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure. This is an in-office procedure that we do for patients who have high-grade changes to their cervix. A hot wire loop is passed through tissue and cuts it away from the cervix to remove the portion affected by HPV. Oftentimes, patients will have normal pap smears after this procedure is done.” Still, it is important to note that a LEEP only eliminates the high-grade cells caused by HPV, and it might not clear the HPV virus entirely. And although LEEPs were used to treat all grades of high-risk HPV at one point in time, most gynecologists refrain from doing this procedure until absolutely necessary since low-grade abnormalities typically go away on their own.
Although there is no cure, there are steps to help your body fight off the virus. Says Dr. Valenton, “Our immune system, if intact, will learn to fight it over time. Maintaining a healthy immune system can be accomplished by getting plenty of rest [and] taking vitamins to boost immunity.” Dr. Valenton explains that B-complex vitamins have been shown to help your body fight off the virus. In addition to this, getting an appropriate amount of exercise and eating a healthy diet of whole foods should help boost your immune system.
One thing to avoid when diagnosed with any strain of HPV is cigarette smoking. According to a 2010 study, “smoking may increase cell proliferation and turnover in the transformation zone of the cervix.” In other words, the same way a retinoid can speed the cell turnover and cell production on your skin, cigarette smoking can speed up abnormal cell production on your cervix, which can cause low-grade cells to either never go away or turn into cancer.
Life After HPV
Dr. Shepherd points out that in some instances the virus can repeatedly infect people. This means that even if you are now HPV-free, you must still make it a point to schedule your yearly OB/GYN appointment.
Additionally, for those of you looking to expand your family size either now or down the line, HPV does not affect your ability to get pregnant—although a LEEP can cause some complications during pregnancy. Says Dr. Valenton, “A LEEP procedure can potentially affect the integrity of a cervix during pregnancy. It does not mean that it will definitely weaken the cervix, but it can. It is important to consult with your obstetrician so that the cervix can be monitored closely for shortening, and if need be it can be reinforced with a stitch called a cerclage.”
Bottom line, do not let your recent (or perhaps not-so-recent) diagnosis scare you. Dr. Valenton explains, “Because it is so common, people should not feel stigmatized if they test positive. This should not be viewed as something that you have to call every partner you have had in the past about. It should not keep someone from avoiding dating or having healthy relationships. It simply is information that can help you and your doctor in deciding how closely [you] should monitor your cervix.” So, in simpler words, enjoy your life and take care of yourself.
Editor’s Note: Although we have spoken with multiple experts and done a ton of research to deliver you the most accurate health information available, we are by no means medical professionals. If you have HPV or think you have HPV, please contact your OB/GYN for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.
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