Contracting a strain of HPV is very common.
You may have had it as a child in the form of a pesky plantar wart on the bottom of your foot or a small nodule that developed on your finger.
In early adulthood, HPV is commonly contracted through sexual contact, with 80% of women contracting a strain within her lifetime.
The common occurrence of HPV and its often-invisible symptoms may make you wonder, what happens after you’ve been infected, and can a virus reactivate?
Here we breakdown a little more about HPV, HPV testing, how the virus enters latency, and whether infection can come back. We also provide some tips to help you maintain optimal immune health.
What is HPV?
The human papillomavirus includes a diverse group of over 150 viruses that infiltrate the body through our skin tissue and use the machinery of our cells to replicate their viral code.
Depending on the strain and the immune system, an HPV infection may present a range of symptoms from visible papilloma, or warts, on the skin surface or genitals to no symptoms at all.
Few high-risk strains may develop into complications like cervical cancer years after infection.
HPV is typically considered a lifelong infection, once you have contracted a viral strain the DNA lives within your cells. However, the HPV virus can get deactivated and stop producing its viral load, referred to as viral latency.
For more information on HPV, check out our article on What Is HPV? for an in-depth guide to HPV.
- First HPV-positive results: this is a common result and most new infections will likely revert to a negative within 6 to 12 months but require follow-up.
- HPV-positive, cytology negative- patients with positive HPV status but negative cytology are at an increased risk of developing cervical cancer. A patient with the result will be recommended to be followed and repeat HPV and cytology in 12 months.
- Recurrent HPV-positive- often a positive HPV screen will be followed by an HPV negative. This suggests the immune system has made the HPV infection latent. The HPV infection can still recur upon reactivation due to a weakened immune system.
- Persistent HPV positive- a persistent HPV infection, that has been positive for over 12 months, is likely to develop into a CIN 2 infection within five to seven years. The infection should be closely monitored for potential progression.
- Persistent HPV-positive, low-risk cytology and negative colposcopy- In the situation, patients may still be at risk of disease progression, and active surveillance is still needed.
The majority (80-90%) of HPV infections will enter a state of latency. Latency refers to a virus remaining in a resting state without producing its viral code so symptoms or complications don’t develop.
In a healthy immune system, active infections will initiate an immune response through CD4+ T cells. Once these cells are activated more immune molecules accumulate at the site of infiltration and overtake the viral gene expression.
A compromised or weak immune system seems to be the hallmark of HPV infections, where the failure to develop effective cell-mediated immunity to clear or control the infection results in persistent infection and increases the probability that the cells progress to cancer.
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Recurrence of Latent Infections
Because the HPV particles continue to exist within the bottom layer of the epithelial cells, the virus can get reactivated following a change in immune status.
Maintaining viral latency requires one to maintain a healthy immune system. When this fails or is compromised the virus can begin replicating again and may lead to symptoms or progress to complications like cervical cancer.
Can I Get Re-infected?
If you have contracted a strain of HPV in the past, you are not immune from catching further infections.
The 150 different strains of HPV all have slightly different DNA and mechanisms of infiltrating an individual.
It is estimated that 75-85% of females and males carry a strain of HPV. Therefore, engaging in sexual activity can expose an individual to further HPV infections and complications. Even women in long-term monogamous relationships can get re-infected.
Research is looking to evaluate whether exposure to HPV viruses, particularly HPV 16 and 18, which cause the most cases of cervical cancer, can lead to natural protection against additional HPV strains. Thus far, there has been a lack of sufficient data on naturally acquired immunity and whether the previous infection can reduce rates of recurrence.
Maintaining a healthy immune system
Regardless of the strain of HPV, you have contracted, the key to silencing the virus and keeping it in its latency state depends on the health of the immune system.
The immune system is multi-faceted, which means supporting it is complex as well.
First, reducing risk factors like smoking, prolonged oral contraceptive use, assessing coinfections, and immune-related diseases is key to ensuring adequate immune functioning.
Second, implementing a healthy diet, rich in diverse plant-based foods and good-quality proteins, reducing stress, getting good quality sleep, and engaging in regular exercise is also important to support our body and immune health.
Lastly, supplementation can help replenish nutritional deficiencies that are essential for proper immune function. Papillex includes a range of nutrients known to be low in patients with persistent HPV infections and a number of herbs that help optimize our immune system.