HPV, otherwise known as human papillomavirus, is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that impacts the health of millions of people each year. HPV is mostly preventable with the vaccine (which you can get before being sexually active and as early as 11 years of age) and other safer-sex practices, but for those who have already been infected with this virus, they have a different road ahead of them. Now, new research shows that stress can potentially serve as a trigger for HPV. But the question remains: Is HPV stress-related? And can stress impact the long-term health of people who have HPV?
Can Stress Trigger HPV?
To answer the question of “is HPV stress-related?”, we must first look at exactly what this virus is and how it is transmitted. HPV is spread through having anal, oral, or vaginal sex with somebody who carries the virus. In many cases, HPV can lie dormant in somebody’s immune system, meaning that they have the virus without any knowledge that they have it. Thus, HPV can be asymptomatic.
In most situations, HPV clears up on its own, usually within a two-year time frame. But there are instances where the virus continues to live throughout the body. In these situations, patients are more likely to experience active symptoms of HPV as well as more serious health concerns. Additionally, the longer that HPV remains in somebody’s system, the more risk there is for spreading it to other people.
When HPV causes symptoms, the most typical presentation of the virus is genital warts, skin irritation, and, unfortunately, cancer. In the past, there wasn’t much information about what caused the symptoms of HPV to flare up or appear seemingly out of nowhere. Many experts believed that there was no rhyme or reason to when the symptoms came and went. However, recent studies have shown that HPV symptoms can actually be triggered by certain factors like having a weakened immune system and experiencing mental health distress.
This means that having severe anxiety, depression, or other mental health symptoms can actually trigger a symptomatic response if you have HPV. According to the literature released from the Pediatric Academic Societies‘ 2016 meeting, it is less likely that HPV will clear up on its own if the person—particularly those who were assigned female at birth—have poor coping strategies when it comes to stress. Other factors that the study acknowledged as reducing the body’s ability to fight off HPV included smoking, using drugs, and drinking.
The negative relationship between stress and health is not new, of course. Experts have long since known that stress can lead to a lowered immune system, chronic pain, and flare-ups of autoimmune disorders. So, when it comes to HPV and stress, the connection is no different.
What Happens if HPV Doesn’t Go Away?
If HPV doesn’t clear up on its own as a result of stress, there can be serious consequences. The symptoms mentioned earlier can reappear. This means that you might have a flare of genital warts or other skin irritations like common warts, plantar warts, and flat warts. These can appear on areas of the skin surrounding the hands, feet, and mouth.
Most notably, when HPV remains in the body for longer periods of time, the risk of developing cancer greatly increases. Cancers linked to the HPV infection include cancers of the:
Sadly, there is no cure for HPV. Most people who have symptoms get treatment specifically for the symptoms, such as wart medication or chemotherapy for cancer. The best chance for you to reduce the risks of developing health concerns related to HPV is to practice healthy habits as well as manage your stress levels. This will help encourage your body to fight against the HPV infection and begin to heal.
What to Do if You Struggle with HPV and Stress
If you are diagnosed with or suspect that you might have HPV and you know that you struggle with maintaining low stress levels, there are a few things that you can do to protect yourself from further harm. First, it’s always important to see your healthcare provider often. Getting regularly tested for STIs, practicing safe sex, and receiving annual pap tests (if applicable) are all ways that you can monitor HPV and related concerns before the symptoms take over.
Furthermore, taking care of your mental health is extremely important in general, regardless if you have HPV or not. But if you do have HPV, this is particularly vital. Some common stressors that you should look out for include:
- Major life changes
- Financial strain
- Health concerns
- Toxic relationships
- Social isolation
While you won’t always be able to predict when these intense stressors might appear, you can practice techniques to learn how to healthily cope with them. One of the most helpful ways you can learn to manage stress is by seeing a mental health professional. This might be a social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist. They will be able to recommend specific strategies for managing stress, which could include:
- Talk therapy
- Group support
- Medication evaluation
Another way to manage stress would be to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness involves being aware of your thoughts and feelings and allowing unhelpful ones to flow by you without judgement. This is similar to meditation. Mindfulness can also calm you down in crisis situations and help you to make safe decisions for yourself and your health. Breathing techniques, emotional regulation, and replacing unhealthy with helpful behaviors are also all part of mindfulness practice.
There are dozens of other ways to reduce stress as well. Changing your lifestyle, talking to friends in times of need, giving yourself breaks from high-stress situations—these are all ways that you can bring your stress levels down to a place that is much easier to manage.
Will Less Stress Fix HPV?
With all of this being said, we now know the answer to the question “is HPV stress-related?” But this doesn’t mean that reducing stress levels will fix or cure HPV. Rather, living a healthy, happy life can only contribute to the likelihood that your body will recover from HPV faster or more efficiently. While there’s no guaranteed way to completely prevent all health-related risks associated with HPV, reducing stress is something that can benefit your overall well being. After all, it can’t hurt to try.
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