Understanding HPV

You probably have a lot of questions about HPV. Information available online can be quite overwhelming and difficult to process. We want to help you understand what exactly is going on by answering some of the most commonly asked HPV questions below. You are always welcome to email our team directly or DM us on Instagram.

HPV stands for human papillomavirus, a common virus that includes over 150 different types of strains that infect the skin and mucous membranes. This group of viruses includes genital warts, vulvar dysplasia (VIN) and cervical dysplasia (CIN), some of which can lead to pre-cancerous cell changes in the cervix.

There are over 150 different strains of HPV and many of these are spread through genital contact. There are “low-risk” strains of HPV that cause genital, hand, and foot warts. In addition, there are “high-risk” strains that are responsible for various types of cancer, most commonly cervical cancer.

It is estimated that approximately 70 percent of the population will get one or more types of HPV at some point in their lives.

Often, there aren’t any symptoms at all so you could have HPV without even knowing it. Low-risk strains affect the skin and mucous membranes of the body, leading to warts on the feet, hands or genitals. Other types of HPV cause changes in the cells of the cervix, leading to abnormal cells and the potential to progress to cervical cancer. Genital warts are flesh-coloured bumps that can be flat or raised, and can appear like small, cauliflower-type growths on the skin. Although genital warts may not cause symptoms, some females experience itching, vaginal discharge or bleeding after sexual intercourse.

Abnormal cells on the cervix don’t tend to cause symptoms and the best way to know if you have them is to get regular Pap tests. Pap tests are the most effective way to catch abnormal cervical cells and cervical cancer early so that they can be treated more easily. Speak to your doctor about when you should have a Pap test.

Yes, you can catch HPV through both direct skin-to-skin contact or sexual contact with an infected person. Skin-to-skin contact can be as simple as contacting another person’s hand or foot warts, or sexual contact such as rubbing the penis against the opening of the vagina or anus, or oral contact with the genitals. You do not need to have sex, whether it’s oral, vaginal, or anal, to spread the infection.

Conventional HPV treatment includes the following surgical procedures: 

Conization: (aka cone biopsy) removes the abnormal areas by excision.

Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure: (LEEP) abnormal cells are removed with an electrical current.

Cryotherapy: freezing off the abnormal cells with liquid nitrogen

Naturopathic doctors have been successful in supporting patients with HPV, genital warts, and cervical dysplasia through screening, diet, lifestyle changes, and nutrient supplementation for decades. 

Your overall health and well-being have a huge impact on whether your body is a hospitable host for an HPV infection or not. When a virus enters the body, your immune system rallies the troops to defend your body against the foreign invader.

Most people with a robust immune system are likely to encounter an HPV infection without any symptoms. It is during times when your immune system may be worn down that an infection can cause more serious health effects such as cervical dysplasia or genital warts. Your immune system can become compromised in periods of fatigue or stress, leaving your body susceptible.

Diet, lifestyle and supplements work hand-in-hand. Make these 5 changes for optimal wellness:

1) Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables – especially those rich in vitamin A and carotenoids. A recent study in the Journal of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention found that females who consumed large amounts of vegetables were less likely to have persistent HPV. Getting your essential vitamins and minerals will keep your immune system strong. 

2) Be nice to your immune system by leading a healthy lifestyle. Beyond dietary considerations and smoking cessation, aim for adequate sleep, abstain from recreational drugs and alcohol, and avoid high amounts of stress. Many alternative therapies like meditation or acupuncture can help to relieve stress and enhance the body’s resilience against infection and disease. 

3) Drink Green Tea. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests the flavonoid ECGC may inhibit the development of HPV warts and cervical cell changes.

4) Quit smoking. Smoking is detrimental to your health in countless ways; there really is no bodily system or vital organ that remains unscathed by this habit. According to a study published in the Journal of Cancer Causes and Control, smoking doubles the risk of HPV progressing into cervical cancer. 

Females should know that long-term use of oral contraceptives has been linked to an increased risk of developing cervical cancer. 99% of all cervical cancers are the result of the HPV virus; however, the Institute for Research on Cancer found that females who have the HPV virus and have used oral contraceptives for five years are nearly four times as likely to develop cervical cancer. The good news is that the risk decreases once you stop taking the birth control pill. 

5) Sweat every day! Exercise decreases stress hormones and can have an anti-inflammatory effect on your body. Exercise is also a great way to improve circulation and detoxification.

Cervical cancer is by far the most significant concern. However, high-risk types of HPV also have been linked to cancers of the oropharynx, vulva, vagina, anus and penis.

Some research also has suggested a link between high-risk types of HPV and other cancers, such as mouth and throat cancer. However, these other HPV-related cancers are still being investigated and are thought to be relatively rare.

There are 3 main ways to help reduce your risk of HPV infection:

  1. Get regular sexual health checkups and Pap tests to screen for issues early.
  2. Practice safe sex and limit your number of sexual partners. Consistent use of condoms will reduce your risk for HPV transmission, but it will not completely eliminate it.
  3. Talk to your doctor to find out if HPV vaccination, which helps protect against certain types of HPV, might be right for you.

Anyone can get HPV. Males tend to have no symptoms until the HPV virus begins to cause abnormal changes in skin cells.

Although HPV infection has been linked to cancer of the penis and anus, these cancers are very rare. For this reason, as well as because a method of sample male genital skin cells has yet to be discovered, there is currently no FDA-approved HPV test for men.

In most cases, the body’s immune system fights off or suppresses the virus before abnormal cells develop. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 70 percent of new HPV infections (including those that are “high risk”) revert to an inactive state within one year, and 91 percent revert within two years.

It’s only when high-risk types of HPV stay “active” for a long period of time that the risk of developing abnormal cells that can turn into cervical cancer increases significantly.

In one study conducted by the National Cancer Institute, 4% of females who had high-risk HPV developed pre-cancerous cervical disease (CIN 3) in the following three years. When watched for 10 years, about 7% of the females developed advanced cervical disease.

Overall, it’s estimated that females who have long-lasting active infections with high-risk HPV are 200+ times more likely to develop pre-cancerous cervical disease.

Yes there is an HPV test in addition to Pap-smear testing. It’s important to note that an HPV test is not included in the regular sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing. The HPV test detects the high-risk HPV strains (the ones that are most likely to cause cancer) and, much like a Pap test, is done by sampling cells collected from the cervix.

The only sure way of preventing an HPV infection is to abstain from sexual activity. Since this is quite unrealistic, practicing safer sex will help lower your risk of getting HPV but will not protect you completely. It’s important to have an open conversation with your sexual partner(s) about their HPV status so that you can both make the best decision for your health.

There are two HPV vaccines available that help to protect against nine strains of HPV that, together, cause 70% of all cases of cervical cancer.

As a female, it is important to get Pap tests done regularly, even if you have been vaccinated against HPV. Talk to your doctor to find out more about your options for protecting yourself against HPV.

An abnormal Pap result does not mean you have cervical cancer. About 4 to 5 million Pap tests are done every year in Canada and only about 350,000 get an abnormal result. Only a fraction of those (1,400) are cancerous.

Abnormal Pap results means there is a change in the cells of the cervix. Changes in the cells could be a result of a vaginal infection, a sexually transmitted infection (STI), HPV (a specific type of STI), or hormone level changes, among other causes.

Discuss your results with your doctor, who will let you know if further tests, such as an HPV or STI test, are needed.

Cervical dysplasia is the abnormal growth of cells on the surface of the cervix. Although this is not cancer, this is considered a precancerous condition. Cervical dysplasia is grouped into three categories:

  1. CIN I — mild dysplasia (a few cells are abnormal and occupy the lower third of the cervix)
  2. CIN II — moderate to marked dysplasia (abnormal cells occupy up to the middle third of the cervix)
  3. CIN III — severe dysplasia to carcinoma-in-situ (precancerous cells extend to the upper third of the cervix).

Most females with cervical dysplasia have an HPV infection.

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