Health And Wellness

The Invisible Infection: 7 Things You Need To Know About High-Risk HPV

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HPV Awareness

Every five minutes, a woman is diagnosed with a kind of gynecological cancer. Over 33,000 of these cases end in death.

What many women don’t realize is that most of these cancers are caused by one of the two forms of the human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, that this infection is invisible, and that it is incredibly pervasive.

According to the CDC, more than 42 million Americans are currently infected with HPV strains that may cause disease with about 13 million new people, including teens, becoming infected each year. A staggering 80% of sexually active people will contract HPV at some point in their lifetime.

The most dangerous form of HPV (human papillomavirus) is referred to as “high-risk” HPV.

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Unlike “low-risk” HPV strains which manifest in the form of painful lesions or genital warts that do not evolve into more serious diseases, high-risk HPV strains are virtually invisible. There is no outward sign of infection and women usually find out that they have contracted it only after taking the HPV test performed by their gynecologist.

For most women, the diagnosis comes as a shock, particularly for those practicing safe sex and in monogamous relationships. While condoms do aid in the prevention of HPV, HPV can affect areas that are not covered by a condom, allowing the infection to transmit from partner to partner.

Detection of an active infection does not imply infidelity or promiscuous behavior by either partner since HPV may have been contracted years earlier. HPV can lay dormant and undetectable for years before becoming an active infection. This means that you could have been infected by a previous partner without knowing it.

Women should also keep in mind that their partners may be unaware that they are infected, particularly men who don’t have access to standardized HPV screenings the way that women do.

If you are diagnosed with high-risk HPV, the good news is that most people with a healthy well-functioning immune system will likely clear an active infection within 2 years.

Although the infection may be temporary for most, people are exposed to an elevated risk of abnormal cell formation during this period.

This is why the current standard of care is what is referred to as “watchful waiting” where the physician conducts regular screenings to ensure that the infection has not caused the formation of abnormal cells such as in the case of cervical dysplasia — a pre-cancerous condition where abnormal cells form on the surface of the cervix.

The main concern with HPV is that some people don’t have optimally functioning immune systems, which can be impaired by stress, insufficient sleep, excessive sugar consumption, and immunosenescence — the natural deterioration of the immune system as we age.

Taking care of your body with diet, nutrition, and exercise improves the likelihood that your immune system functions at its best, even as you age.

Still, about 10% of people who get HPV wind up with the so-called “persistent” infections which the body does not clear on its own.

In such cases, regular screenings coupled with immunity-building habits become particularly important since the infection is not expected to clear up without intervention.

Preparing your body to fight the infection before it occurs and optimizing your immune health during an active HPV infection could be life-saving.

It is also important to note that while HPV is most prevalent among women around 45% of men get infected with the virus. Most men remain undiagnosed unless their infection graduates to one of the three cancers linked to men and high-risk HPV.

With statistics this high, it is more important than ever to educate ourselves on HPV and take action to protect ourselves. And what better time than Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month this September?

How To Stay Healthy While Living With HPV

1. Get the vaccine.

The HPV vaccine has been proven to be safe and effective since its introduction to the U.S. in 2006. According to the CDC, cervical precancers caused by HPV that are most often linked to cervical cancer have dropped by 40% among vaccinated women.

Additionally, infections with HPV types that cause most HPV cancers have dropped by 81%. The vaccine is also highly beneficial to men. Roughly 36,500 cancer cases in men and women in the U.S. are caused by HPV. Vaccination can prevent about 33,700 of these cases by preventing the HPV-related infections that cause them.

If you haven’t received the HPV vaccine, it may not be too late. Although the FDA originally approved the vaccine for individuals ages 9 to 26, they expanded their approval to include adults up to age 45. If you were fully vaccinated against HPV more than 10 years ago, you may be eligible for a booster shot.

As of 2022, 135 million doses of the HPV vaccine have been administered.

2. Get annual gynecological exams.

It may not be the most pleasant doctor's visit, but staying up to date with yearly gynecologist appointments is highly effective for protecting yourself against HPV.

Women are advised to get annual pap smear exams once they’ve reached the age of 21 unless they are sexually active beforehand. A pap smear is performed by a gynecologist, where they insert a speculum into the vagina to examine the cervix.

Using a small plastic wand with a brush attached to the end of it, the doctor will collect a sample of cervical cells and send it to a lab where they are tested for any abnormalities or certain types of cancer.

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An abnormal or positive pap smear result indicates a cell change in the cervix. This does not always mean that there is cancer, but rather a disruption of cells caused by HPV. However, if these cells are not identified, HPV can go undetected and lead to infections that result in gynecological cancer.

Around 2 in 5 women who receive a pap smear will get an abnormal result. Almost 90% of the time, HPV is the culprit.

While HPV does not always lead to a cancer diagnosis, catching abnormalities in the cervix through pap smears can prevent any potential precancerous cells from emerging, and treatment can be administered quickly.

Cellular abnormalities caused by HPV can be treated with prescription medication and procedures such as cryotherapy. LEEP procedures, a method used to remove abnormal cells in the cervix using a heated wire loop, are not effective in getting rid of the HPV infection.

A few seconds of discomfort you may experience during a pap smear outweighs the risks you may face from not receiving one annually.

3. Take the clinically proven AHCC® mushroom supplement daily.

Many people are unfamiliar with AHCC® and its benefits. While it’s used and recommended by many physicians, it is not a drug but a natural nutritional supplement.

Extracted from the cell wall of the roots of Japanese medicinal mushrooms, AHCC® contains a unique blend of biologically active constituents such as alpha-glucans, axoglucan™ fractions, and other polysaccharides.

This natural cultured extract has been proven to have strong immune-modulating properties, helping upregulate a weakened immune system without overstimulating it.

AHCC® is also unique because, unlike many other supplements, it has undergone extensive human clinical studies.

More than 30 such clinical studies have been conducted on AHCC in Japan, the US, and worldwide, and more than 50 papers on AHCC® have been published in reputable Medline-indexed NIH-recognized scientific journals.

AHCC®’s ingredients can help treat HPV patients by strengthening the immune system.

A recent study published in the prestigious journal "Frontiers in Oncology" evaluated the effect of AHCC® supplementation on women with more than two years of persistent high-risk HPV infection.

The double-blind placebo-controlled study found that 64% of participants taking AHCC® tested negative after 6 months of use and remained negative for the 6 months that followed while experiencing no side effects. In contrast, only 10% of participants taking a placebo tested negative after 12 months.

The study was conducted at a leading research facility in the US, McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston, and supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The lead researcher on the study, Dr. Judith A. Smith, who was previously at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, is considered one of the leading US experts on AHCC® and its role in oncology.

(The not-for-profit AHCC® Association provides information on genuine, quality verified, AHCC® supplement brands at www.AHCC.net/verified.)

4. Practice good genital hygiene.

Keeping up with your hygiene down there is especially important. You may want to keep that area clean not only for the sake of your partner but for the sake of your personal health as well.

Maintaining genital hygiene prevents bacteria buildup and any viruses you may potentially contract during sex.

Steps to keep up with genital hygiene include washing the area with unscented, antibacterial soap once a day (for ladies, never wash the inside of your vagina), using warm water while washing, and wearing undergarments made of natural fibers and cotton that allow perspiration to air out.

Urination after sex is also essential to preventing infections. It flushes away any harmful bacteria accumulated during sex attempting to make their way into the urethra.

This is especially important for women since they are more prone to urinary tract infections due to shorter urethras closer to the anus, making it easier for germs to enter.

5. Use condoms.

Those sticky pieces of latex provide more benefits than you may think. It is a good idea to use condoms if you want to practice safe sex.

A condom is a fitted tube placed over the male’s penis before engaging in sexual activity and prevents semen from entering the vagina. Although it is less common, women can also wear condoms by inserting female-designed condoms into the vagina.

Both are easy to use and obtain.

RELATED: Safe Sex: Why You’re Never Too Old For Contraception

Condoms should be used to prevent unwanted pregnancies and STDs. When used correctly, male condoms are 98% effective in preventing pregnancy.

Using condoms also decreases the risk of contracting HPV, since they do not allow genital secretions to pass on to sexual partners. Any potential HPV cells may never make it to the affected area.

While condoms are not guaranteed to work 100% of the time, it is always better to be safe than sorry.

6. Get enough sleep.

Most people know that a proper sleep schedule increases one’s alertness and energy for the upcoming day. What many people don’t know is that sleep is incredibly beneficial to our immune systems.

According to the Sleep Foundation, there is a direct correlation between good sleep and strengthened immune systems, which are responsible for warding off illnesses and infections. This is especially beneficial to those living with HPV.

During sleep, the body’s production of cytokines, which are associated with inflammation, increases. When someone is sick or injured, this sleep response aids in a quicker, more effective recovery that can strengthen the immune system.

Even if one contracts HPV, a strong immune system will detect the virus soon after transmission and fight the infection before it becomes more severe. The recommended amount of sleep for adults is 7 to 9 hours a night.

There are many ways we can boost the immune system besides proper sleep. Taking vitamins, eating a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables, washing hands frequently, reducing stress levels, hydration, and keeping up with vaccines are all steps you can take to aid your immune system in fighting infection.

7. Exercise.

Daily exercise is also an effective way to boost your immune system and protect yourself against HPV. Increasing movement throughout the body through exercise also increases the movement of immune cells into the bloodstream.

White blood cells, which identify and attack viruses that enter the body, also increase with exercise.

A 2017 study found that women who engaged in less than four 30-minute exercises a month were 2.43 times more likely to develop cervical cancer from HPV cells than women who engaged in exercise regularly.

Exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous. Just moving your body for at least 30 minutes daily gets the blood flowing and the immune system stronger.

HPV knowledge needs to be shared. Living with high-risk HPV does not mean you will not get to live a healthy, fulfilling life. It will just require you to make lifestyle changes that will ultimately improve your health in the long run.

Even if you are not HPV positive, taking the precautionary measures listed above will lower your risk of contracting the virus and the potential complications that can come from persistent high-risk infections.

Educating ourselves about HPV is another way we can protect, empower, and advocate for our well-being.

—This article was developed in partnership with the AHCC® Research Association. To learn more about this compound, please visit www.AHCC.net.

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Megan Quinn is a writer at YourTango who covers health and wellness, entertainment and news, and relationships.

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