Can HPV Be Cleared by the Immune System?
Diagnosis and Treatment of HPV
HPV, also known as the human papilloma virus, is a sexually transmitted disease that can lead to cervical cancer in women. It is usually detected by an abnormal pap smear, whereafter you receive a phone call informing you that you tested positive for the virus. Some places send a letter instead of calling; which, in my opinion, is a pretty awful way of telling someone they could be on the verge of cancer.
At this point you may be asked to come back for a biopsy of the cervix. If the biopsy shows cell dysplasia, your doctor will choose the next course of action. In my case it was cryosurgery—a rather uncomfortable procedure that involves freezing off the surface area of the cervix to eliminate any possible cancer cells. It felt a lot like when you hold a an ice cube in your hand for too long, only on the inside of your body. What I didn't know at the time was that there is a nerve that runs from the cervix straight to your brain, and that this procedure can cause extreme dizziness upon standing afterward. I naively thought it was going to be no big deal and that I didn't need anyone to come to the doctor's office with me. However, I was unable to drive myself home and had to call for a ride.
My recovery took six weeks, and it was a little unpleasant. I had follow-up checks every 3 months for a year; then for the second year I had to go back for checks every 6 months. The precancerous cells I'd had made no reappearance during that time.
Sometime after, when I was back on my normal once-a-year pap schedule, my doctor told me that I tested negative for HPV. Wait, what? Yep, she was telling me that my body had destroyed the virus and that I no longer had it. Well, that was news to me. But who was I to argue with a trained professional who was telling me I was cleared of a scary virus?
Wait...I might not be cleared after all?
Recent research shows that women of menopause age are beginning to test positive for HPV again, after having been cleared of the virus in their youth. Could HPV be like the chicken pox—where the virus goes dormant after having it in childhood, but sometimes crops back up in old age like shingles? It's a frightening thought. Scientists are unsure at this point if the HPV virus is simply existing at a low enough level in the body that it is undetectable, or if these women are being exposed to the same strain of HPV later in life. But there are over 100 different strains of the virus... I wonder what the likelihood is that women are catching the same strain again.
Prevention is Incredibly Important
It's easy to think you can't catch an STD if you aren't promiscuous. But the truth is, I was married at the time I was diagnosed. Neither of us knew we'd been exposed, or who got it first, since men don't display any symptoms (except in certain strains that come with warts—not the kind we had). If a person is reluctant to use a condom with you, don't sleep with them. Chances are they have been reluctant in the past, as well. Before relaxing on those rules with a committed partner, both of you should be tested. True, there is no test for HPV in men, but you will at least be protected from the rest of the diseases on the STD spectrum.
Never skip an annual pap smear. These days, even women without health insurance can get these kinds of tests for free. It's so important to catch HPV early. If I had skipped that one appointment, I'd have gotten cancer. There is no doubt about it.