Reduce Your Risk of HPV

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Q: I've been hearing a lot about HPV lately. What is it exactly and are there any natural treatments that help prevent it?

-Anna Louise, Seattle

There are at least 60 types of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), the virus that causes warts. Most warts stay at a superficial (epithelial) skin level, go away on their own, and rarely become cancerous. But there are several "high-risk" subtypes of HPV (16, 18, 33, and 35 are the most documented) that, left untreated, can progress to invasive tumors, or cancer.

Strangely, these potential malignant strains are flat warts that are typically not visible to the naked eye. They will, however, turn white when swabbed with vinegar. This is called the "Schilling" test and is used when a test for cervical or penile warts (most commonly known as the PAP smear) comes back positive for high-risk HPV. But high-risk HPV isn't limited by its predilection for the cervix-the throat, larynx, and even lungs can become targets for the infection.

Natural Solutions

Like all viral infections, HPV tends to thrive in an environment that contains too little zinc, too few retinoids (present in vitamin A and bioflavonoids such as turmeric and quercetin), or too much iron. In general, humans, especially meat eaters, get plenty of iron from a varied diet and don't require supplements except in cases of anemia or heavy periods.

Your body's naturally built-in antiviral mechanism is fever. If you have a viral infection (such as the common cold, hepatitis, or HPV), then fever is your friend, and you would do well to raise your body temperature toward 100-102°F for 30-45 minutes three times a week. Far-infrared saunas are great for this purpose.

Many herbs have potent antiviral properties: Some of my favorites include licorice, echinacea, osha, ashwagandha, blood root, and astragalus. For treating a viral infection, I often recommend up to 50,000 IUs of vitamin A daily until the virus is resolved, and 50 mg of zinc, which is a cofactor in almost 75 percent of all the enzymatic reactions in the body.

The standard procedure for a high-risk cervical infection is LEEP, which basically burns a wedge out of the cervix. It's quick-and generally effective-but it may leave the cervix incapable of a normal vaginal delivery. If you don't plan to have any more children, LEEP is a reasonable option. But if children may still be in your future, find a naturopathic physician or progressive nurse practitioner who has been trained in cervical escharotic treatment, a highly effective, but lengthy (6-10 visits) procedure. It involves gently but thoroughly placing liquid enzymes and somewhat caustic herbs on the cervix that literally dissolve the infection and allow for complete restoration of normal tissue. Most women do not experience any pain with this treatment, which lasts about 30 minutes per visit, but I had one patient colorfully describe the feeling as "spicy."

How Often?

Over the past 30 years, our health care system has done a good job at raising awareness about cervical cancer risks. Regular, annual PAP smears have dramatically reduced deaths from cervical cancer in the past two decades. But a few years ago, amid controversy, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists revised its PAP screening recommendations-women were told they only needed PAP screenings once every 2-3 years, depending on individual risk factors, as opposed to the previous recommendation of once annually. I tell most of my married patients (or those in committed relationships) that they no longer need annual PAPs. However, I offer a pelvic exam to palpate the ovaries every 2-3 years, particularly during ages 40-60 when ovarian cancer, for which there is still no good screening test, peaks.

Sore Throat Warning

There has recently been an uptick of lethal throat and tonsil cancers in the U.S., due mainly to high-risk HPV infections among men and women (usually transmitted through oral sex). Why now? The answer is because we live on an increasingly chemical planet that disrupts the health of all living organisms. The throat and mouth are too large to effectively swab with a PAP smear technique, so screening is not simple. And doctors don't screen for HPV in the throat nearly as much as they should. If you have had a chronic sore throat that won't go away after several weeks, or if you have any non-healing ulcers in your mouth, please get tested for HPV.

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