A new study suggests that stress and depression play a significant role in whether the human papillomavirus (HPV) will clear up or remain persistent. Although a woman’s immune system often clears up the virus on its own, HPV that lingers in the body may eventually lead to cervical cancer.
For the study, researchers followed a group of 333 women (average age 19 at the beginning) since 2000. During this time, the participants came into the lab every six months so researchers could take a sample to test for HPV.
Eleven years into the study, when the women were about 28 years old, they were asked to complete a questionnaire that asked about how much stress they had experienced, how they coped with stress, and if they were depressed.
Their answers were compared to HPV persistence (continuing to test positive for the virus) or whether the infection had cleared. The body’s immune system typically fights off the virus within a couple years of exposure, the researchers said.
“Women who reported self-destructive coping strategies, like drinking, smoking cigarettes, or taking drugs when stressed, were more likely to develop an active HPV infection,” said principal investigator Anna-Barbara Moscicki, M.D., FAAP, chief of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine and professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine.
“We also found that women who were depressed or perceived themselves to have lots of stress were more likely to have HPV persistence,” she said, adding that this study is the first to show these connections between stress and HPV persistence.
Research has long linked psychosocial stress with poor health, Moscicki said. Earlier studies have shown that stress can lead to greater numbers of herpes virus outbreaks in those infected, for example, and worse medical outcomes among people with cancer.
One reason for this may be that that stress is associated with an abnormal immune response, which these new findings may support. Further studies will take place to determine whether cervical inflammatory markers are linked to stress.
Moscicki says that women with the infection should be aware that stress reduction may help their bodies eliminate HPV, and that drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes may interfere with their ability to clear the infection.
“HPV infections are the cause of cervical cancers. But HPV infections are extremely common, and only the few infections that continue years beyond initial infection are at risk of developing cervical cancer,” she said. “This is alarming since many of these women acquired their persistent infection as adolescents.”
The new findings were presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies 2016 Meeting.
Source: American Academy of Pediatrics