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Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the common cold of sexually transmitted infections: At least half of all sexually active people will contract genital HPV at some point, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
And many of those infected have no clue they’re even carrying the virus, Greg Juckett, M.D., a professor of family medicine at West Virginia University, told Yahoo Health. That’s because HPV is often asymptomatic — only about 1 percent of sexually active Americans actually develop genital warts, the most visible manifestation of the virus. Plus, HPV infections generally go away on their own, Juckett said. “Normally our immune systems do a wonderful job of clearing HPV.” In fact, 90 percent of detectable HPV infections become undetectable within two years, said Patti Gravitt, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of New Mexico.
In some cases, though, the infection lingers, resulting in what’s called “persistent HPV.” And if the strain that sticks around is a cancer-causing variety, your cervical health could be at risk. “There are HPV strains that never cause genital warts, but have the potential for causing cervical abnormalities and can lead to cervical cancer,” Juckett explained. “It’s these types—types 16 and 18—that we’re especially concerned about.”
Until now, the reasons some HPV infections linger has been a mystery, but recent research is beginning to shed light on possible causes: A new study, published in the journal Epidemiology & Infection, suggests that women who drink alcohol may have an increased risk of persistent HPV. When the National Cancer Center, Korea, scientists tested 9,230 women for HPV and asked them about their alcohol intake, they found that current drinkers were nearly three times more likely than non-drinkers to test positive for HPV at the beginning of the study, and then again at a two-year follow-up. Women who’d been imbibing for five or more years also faced a 2.3 times higher risk of persistent HPV than those who started drinking less than five years prior.
The amount of booze also mattered: The odds of HPV persistence increased as the number of drinks per sitting rose. (The study only examined the intake of beer and soju, a popular alcoholic beverage in Korea.) Specifically, the women who drank three or more glasses of beer at a time had a threefold higher risk of testing positive for HPV at the start of the study and again at the two-year mark than non-drinkers did.
This is one of the first studies to find such an association, making it tough to explain exactly why female drinkers may face a higher risk of long-lasting infection. But the researchers, who couldn’t be reached for comment, did offer a couple of theories in the study: First, alcohol may lead to folate deficiency, potentially altering your DNA, a known precursor to cancer. This explanation makes sense, said Juckett, since “there’s a lot of other evidence that links folic acid deficiency with increased risk of HPV persistence.”
Juckett suggested viewing the study’s findings with caution, since other lifestyle factors are potential contributors to persistent HPV. The biggie is cigarettes: Nearly 10 percent of the drinkers in the study were smokers, compared to just 2 percent of the non-drinkers. “We know that heavy smokers are much more likely to have persistent HPV than the non-smoking population,” said Juckett. Although the reason isn’t known, he suspects that tobacco might suppress the immune system, reducing the body’s ability to fight off the HPV virus.
“A lot of the same population that drinks heavily also smokes heavily,” added Juckett. “And people who live a hard life—drink and smoke a lot, don’t eat their green leafy vegetables and are folate deficient—may also be more sexually active. They may have more frequent partner changes.” The study didn’t account for sexual activity, which the researchers cite as one of the study’s primary limitations.
Even so, limiting your daily alcohol intake to two drinks or less is a smart move for your overall health, he said, with the potential benefit of reducing cervical-cancer risk. “My advice is to not smoke, be moderate in your alcohol intake, eat a healthy diet, and get adequate sleep,” said Juckett. “All four of those factors probably influence your immune system’s ability to fight the infection.”
For women with abnormal pap smears, taking a folic acid supplement—800 micrograms, twice a day—may also be a wise measure. “Folic acid seems to be protective against HPV. But since we don’t yet have solid evidence that taking folic acid will reverse the abnormalities or stop the HPV,” he said, “taking folic acid does not replace following up regularly on your pap smears.”