Written by Claire Venman-Clay, MSN, WHNP-BC for the Brattleboro Reformer June 26, 2015.
There has been a lot of news lately about HPV, also known as the human papillomavirus, and cervical cancer. It is a somewhat confusing subject for many of us that could use some clarification.
HPV is a very common sexually transmitted disease that comes in many different types. Low risk types don't cause cancer, but may cause genital warts, or may be essentially silent. A few types of HPV are considered high-risk and are linked to cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer generally evolves slowly and is highly treatable if discovered early by a pap smear. The pap smear is a part of a standard exam for women. It is a cervical cancer screening test that samples cells from the cervix so they can be examined for changes that occur long before cancer develops. It is the single most cost-effective disease screening test there is and has drastically reduced the number of women who die from cervical cancer.
Current cervical cancer screening guidelines suggest that women should not start getting pap smears until age 21 regardless of when they became sexual active. Women ages 21-29 should have pap smears every 3 years and should only be tested for HPV if their pap smear is abnormal. Women ages 30-65 should have pap smears with HPV co-testing every 3-5 years. Women who have had a hysterectomy and don't have a cervix don't need pap smears.
If you have an abnormal pap smear, don't panic, in most cases your body will return to healthy state rather than progressing towards cervical cancer. There are also great ways to support a return to normal via diet and lifestyle which have a long and proven track record.
For instance, there is a direct correlation between cigarettes and squamous cell cervical cancer, so you can protect yourself by quitting cigarettes. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables, practicing stress reduction, exercising, and getting acupuncture can all help boost immunity. Studies have proven that taking folate and vitamin C can help clear HPV from your system and improve outcomes. There are also many herbs that can be beneficial.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease, but most people don't know that they have it because they don't have any symptoms. HPV is transmitted by direct skin-to-skin contact and its spread isn't totally prevented by condom use. However, condom use is still important because it can reduce your chance of contracting HPV by 70% when used correctly. It can be difficult to tell who you may have caught HPV from because the virus can lie inactive in the skin for long periods of time and may only show up if your immune system has been weakened.
Many people have questions about what to do regarding the HPV vaccines. It seems like a vaccine that can prevent cancer would be a no-brainer, but it is a relatively new vaccine and its long-term safety hasn't been proven yet. Also, there have already been many reports of significant side-effects from the vaccine. Although HPV rates are high amongst sexually active people, cervical cancers are rare and a healthy immune system will usually clear the virus within 1-2 years. As discussed above, proper pap smear screening remains the best approach to prevention, especially when coupled with other good lifestyle practices.