The Link Between HPV and Autoimmunity

I talk a lot about autoimmunity. I first like to share the empowering news that genetics only accounts for about 25% of your risk of developing an autoimmune disease. That means 75% of your chance comes from external factors that you CAN impact, such as diet, toxins, infections, and stress.

Today, I want to focus on autoimmunity and infections –– specifically, the link between autoimmune conditions such as lupus and the human papillomavirus (HPV). While it may seem like infections just happen to us, in many cases, they are one of the root causes of autoimmunity that you absolutely can control.

What is Autoimmune Disease?

How Do You Get Lupus?

No one knows the exact trigger for any autoimmune condition, including lupus. At their core, all autoimmune diseases have one thing in common: chronic inflammation that causes your immune system to go rogue.

In the case of systemic lupus erythematosus or SLE, the most common type of lupus, just about any part of your body could be affected. Still, the chronic inflammation of SLE mostly affects the joints, skin, and internal organs. Symptoms vary from person to person, but most often, those with SLE experience pain and swelling of the joints. They may also develop skin rashes, sores, and mouth ulcers.

Over 1.5 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with SLE –– 90% of whom are women between the ages of 15-44. I’ll talk more about lupus and other autoimmune conditions in just a minute.1

What is the Human Papillomavirus (HPV)?

There are more than 100 varieties of human papillomavirus. Forty of them can infect the genitals, the anus, and the mouth. Those are the types I’ll discuss here. However, palmer warts (found on the hands) and plantar warts (found on the feet) are also caused by HPV strains.

HPV is generally divided into two types: low-risk and high-risk. The low-risk types of HPV are the ones that usually result in skin-colored warts in the oral, anal, or genital areas.2

The low-risk types, even those that are sexually transmitted, are usually completely harmless.

High-risk strains of HPV in women can lead to cervical cancer, cancer of the vulva, vagina, anus, mouth, and throat.3 In fact, HPV types 16 and 18 care responsible for up to 80% of all cervical cancers, the third most frequent cancer type in women.

In men, high-risk HPV strains can lead to cancers of the anus, mouth, and throat. Just like with the low-risk types, with the high-risk strains, you may never have HPV symptoms.

How Do You Get HPV?

All forms of HPV are transmitted by skin-to-skin contact. Sexually transmitted HPV can result from vaginal, anal, or oral sexual contact. The symptoms can develop years after you were initially infected.1 

However, just like the types on your hands or feet, they often go away by themselves if you do develop symptoms. If your immune system is in optimal shape, your body can typically fight off the virus without you ever even knowing you had it. 

That’s one of the reasons that HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 79 million Americans have it.4

The other reason is that nearly all other STDS, such as gonorrhea and syphilis, are transferred by body fluid. Because HPV is simply transmitted through skin-to-skin contact,5it’s much easier to contract. 

What’s the Relationship Between HPV and Autoimmunity?

Infection with HPV may also make you more susceptible to certain kinds of autoimmunity.

At the same time, autoimmunity may make you more susceptible to the virus and flares of it down the line.

HPV Can Lead to Autoimmunity

Infection with the HPV virus is linked to lupus as well as other autoimmune diseases including multiple sclerosis.6,7

It’s thought that the immune cells involved in certain autoimmune diseases may be the same as those activated during an immune response to certain types of HPV. So when you have HPV, your body unwittingly learns to attack healthy tissue, too, causing autoimmunity.8

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For example, research shows that HPV infection is directly associated with the onset of several oral autoimmune diseases, including: 

  • oral lichen planus (OLP)
  • mucous membrane pemphigoid (MMP)
  • pemphigus vulgaris (PV)
  • epidermolysis bullosa aquisita (EBA)9

Autoimmunity Can Lead to HPV

And you may be more likely to get infected with HPV if you already have autoimmunity. In addition, those with lupus are more likely to contract the HPV virus and to have cervical cancer than the general population of women.10

That’s because some immune system disorders cause abnormally low activity of the immune system, decreasing the body’s ability to fight invaders and therefore increasing vulnerability to infections.11

Viral infections never really go away; they can flare up when the body is under stress. However, this happens more persistently, and for more prolonged periods, in people with SLE. One study showed that for those without SLE, HPV cleared out within six months. However, 49% of those with SLE had persistent infection with HPV.12

Isn’t there a Vaccine to Prevent HPV Infection?

There are vaccines for HPV, yet they are not without controversy. No single vaccine protects against all forms of HPV. The two most common HPV vaccines are the HPV-6/11/16/18 vaccine (Gardasil®) and the HPV-16/18 AS04-adjuvanted vaccine (Cervarix®).

The HPV-6/11/16/18 vaccine is designed to protect against HPV types 6, 11, 16, and 18.13 The HPV-16/18 AS04-adjuvanted vaccine protects against HPV types 16 and 18.14

Anyone up to age 45 and as young as nine can receive the HPV vaccine, although 11-13 is the suggested age range in the United States.15 The vaccine is given to both boys and girls, usually in two doses. Three doses are recommended for those with autoimmune disease.16

There is evidence, however, that the vaccine may be related to the onset of autoimmune disease including celiac disease, Addison’s, Hashimoto’s, and Raynaud’s, among others.17

One reason for this may be molecular mimicry between the vaccine and myelin basic protein, a component of the nervous system.18

This means that your body may attack its own cells after you have the vaccine because it can’t tell the difference between the proteins in certain cells in your body and the protein used in the HPV vaccine.19

The Issues to Consider

There are four main takeaways you should be aware of:

  1. Those with autoimmunity may be more likely to contract HPV, including the varieties that cause cancer. 
  2. Those who contract HPV may be more likely to develop an autoimmune disease such as lupus. 
  3. The vaccine can prevent the strains of HPV that cause cancer. 
  4. The vaccine itself has been linked to the onset of autoimmunity.

What Should You Do?

Testing for HPV

You should get tested if you do think you are at risk or might even have the virus. 

Conventional doctors don’t generally test for HPV alone. Instead, they commonly perform a pap test to check for cervical cancer,20 which can arise from an HPV infection. I do recommend an annual pap test, regardless of your risk for autoimmunity or HPV.

There is a combination of HPV/pap; however, that’s rarely used. In functional medicine, we test for HPV much more frequently because the virus can be the root cause of other issues.

Evaluate the Risks

Remember, because the infection can lie dormant for so long, it’s possible to transmit HPV even years after exposure. Evaluating your personal risk will depend on your situation and your sex life, or those of your child long before she or he is sexually active. If you think they or you are at risk or might even have the virus, get tested. 

Protect Yourself

Whether or not you opt for one of the vaccines, protect yourself from exposure. If you are not already in a long-term relationship with someone you trust who is HPV-negative, use condoms the right way, EVERY TIME. Use dental dams for oral sex, which come in various colors, flavors, and designs. Birth control pills will not prevent HPV and have actually been linked to a higher risk of cervical cancer.21

Support Your Immune System

Finally, support your immune system and detox pathways. Even if you do contract the HPV virus, an optimally-functioning immune system with fully functioning detox pathways can keep you from developing symptoms and the inflammation that can lead to further illness.

Methylation is a biochemical process that, among many other critical functions, transforms toxins into safer substances that will not harm your body. Methylation depends on a number of vitamins and cofactors, including folate, vitamin B12, and vitamin B6. Low levels of these three vitamins, in particular, have been linked to the progression of HPV infections in those who contracted the virus.

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Those who have a heavy viral load and those with MTHFR gene mutations are particularly in need of support in their methylation process. The more mutations one has at this gene, the less able one is to make this conversion.

I personally have two gene MTHFR gene mutations. My Methylation Support formula is the perfect blend of the nutrients your body needs to engage in optimal methylation. I custom-selected these nutrients in their most bioavailable forms to support the body’s methylation and detoxification efforts.

Can hpv cause hypothyroidism
— Update: 12-02-2023 — found an additional article HPV Vaccine Safely Prevents Cancer. Here’s How We Know. from the website for the keyword can hpv cause hypothyroidism.

Since its release, the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine has been embroiled in controversy. Many people with concerns question its safety; others question the need for it. Regardless, the end result is the same — young people who could be protected against some forms of cancer later in life are passing up the opportunity, either directly or as the result of a decision made by their parents.

From a public health perspective, this is like watching an unnecessary tragedy develop in slow motion. In the latest data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), released in August 2019, about 2 of every 3 teens between 13 and 17 years of age had received at least one dose of HPV vaccine, but only about half of them had completed the recommended number of doses. In contrast, in late 2018, Australia celebrated being on track to eliminate HPV as a public health problem within the next two decades. In 2016, the latest data available, about 3 of every 4 boys and 4 of every 5 girls in Australia had completed the HPV vaccine series by the age of 15 years. Australia used the quadrivalent HPV vaccine (HPV-4, Gardasil®) and switched to the nine-valent HPV vaccine in 2018.

Can hpv cause hypothyroidism

“But is the HPV vaccine safe?”

Australia’s success means little to parents who wonder if the vaccine is safe, so let’s talk about HPV vaccine safety. We know that the HPV vaccine is safe because we have a lot of evidence.

The HPV vaccine has been given to millions of people at this point. In the U.S. alone, more than 100 million doses of vaccine have been distributed. Even if people were getting the two or three recommended doses, which we know from the chart is not happening, that still amounts to more than 33 million people who have received the HPV vaccine. If the vaccine was causing any troubling side effects, they would have been discovered at this point.

Specific concerns related to the HPV vaccine as a cause of chronic disorders have been studied.

Summaries of many of those studies are provided on the page of our website devoted to sharing vaccine safety studies,

These studies found no link between receipt of the HPV vaccine and development of the following conditions:

  • Chronic fatigue syndrome or systemic exertion intolerance disease
  • Chronic regional pain syndromes
  • Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome
  • Primary ovarian failure
  • Venous thromboembolism (blood clots)

Researchers from China recently reviewed the existing studies about HPV vaccine and autoimmune diseases.

The type of study they did was a “systematic review and meta-analysis.” When scientists conduct a study in this manner, they systematically locate as many papers as they can about a particular topic and use criteria to evaluate the quality of each before using statistical analyses to evaluate and summarize what all of the studies together indicate about the issue, in this case what is known about the relationship between HPV vaccine and autoimmune diseases.

What is a systematic review?

Typically, during the systematic review, many papers are eliminated because they do not meet certain predetermined criteria, such as:

  • They are not directly related to the topic at hand.
  • They are not original research studies, but rather other types of papers, like case reports, which describe a finding without performing a controlled study, or an editorial, which, like in a newspaper, is a letter by someone with knowledge offering their thoughts.
  • They are not peer-reviewed. Having other scientists review a study before it is published is an important part of the research process. Think of these people as the “officials in the booth” when a questionable play occurs on the football field. They know the rules, and they make a decision based on how well the rules were followed. The main difference, however, is that when it comes to scientific publications, virtually every paper gets reviewed by the booth, not just a few questionable plays. Journals that allow papers to be published without going through the peer review process may have sound scientific papers, but often, they have papers that could not make it past the reviewers.

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What did these researchers learn about HPV vaccine safety?

Of the 541 papers located, 137 were considered close enough to the topic by virtue of their titles and abstracts that they were reviewed. Only 20 met all of the criteria for inclusion in the statistical part of the study. This may sound like a very small final number, but this shows how important it is to understand that just because a paper may seem like it is about a topic does not mean it is useful for answering a particular question. Also, of interest, of the 20 studies evaluated, five of them were determined to be of “low quality” based on their lack of scientific rigor.

In the current review, researchers determined that the HPV vaccine did not cause increases in any of the following types of autoimmune disorders:

  • Neurological — Disorders involving the brain or nervous system, including Bell’s palsy, epilepsy, Guillain-Barré syndrome, multiple sclerosis, narcolepsy, optic neuritis, or paralysis
  • Gastrointestinal — Disorders involving the digestive tract, including inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, or autoimmune pancreatitis
  • Musculoskeletal or systemic — Disorders including ankylosing spondylitis, rheumatoid or juvenile arthritis, systematic lupus erythematosus, or vasculitis
  • Hematological — Disorders of the blood including autoimmune hemolytic anemia, Henoch-Schönlein purpura, and idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura
  • Dermatological — Disorders involving the skin, including scleroderma, psoriasis, and vitiligo
  • Diabetes — type 1 diabetes
  • Thyroid disorders — Grave’s disease, hypothyroidism, and hyperthyroidism did not correlate with receipt of HPV vaccine. On the other hand, data suggested Hashimoto’s thyroiditis may be correlated. The authors pointed out, however, that this finding was not likely to be an actual risk for a few reasons. First, the populations studied and the methodology used in the studies may have confounded the results. Second, all of the other thyroid-based diseases, including hypothyroidism, which is typically caused by Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, were negative.

“But my child doesn’t need the HPV vaccine”

As a parent, it is difficult to look at your 11- or 12-year-old and envision a time when they will become mature adults involved in relationships. But in the case of the HPV vaccine, the adage by Ben Franklin, “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” applies for a few reasons:

  1. As children get older, they get busier, which means things like appointments sometimes get delayed or forgotten completely.
  2. The vaccine is most effective after the last dose, which is due six to 12 months after the first dose.
  3. Once teens reach 15 years of age, they need three doses instead of two.
  4. Most people will be infected with HPV at some point during their lives. Most often, the infection occurs shortly after becoming sexually active. As a parent, you may or may not know when that happens.
  5. The vaccine does not work after exposure to the virus. Since the vaccine protects against nine types of HPV, it can still be of value even after someone becomes sexually active, but it will not be effective against types of HPV to which the person was previously exposed. Because some of the most commonly transmitted types are the ones that cause cancers most frequently, not getting the HPV vaccine on time could still mean developing a cancer later in life.

The Vaccine Education Center regularly receives inquiries through a page on our website dedicated to answering questions about HPV, Some of the most frantic are those that come from individuals who themselves, their partners, or their children, recently had a positive HPV test. They are in complete and utter panic, often wondering what they should do, how they can get rid of it, and whether it is too late to be vaccinated. With a safe and effective vaccine, this scenario does not need to keep happening in homes throughout the country and the world.

Additional resources

For more information about HPV disease or vaccine, check out these resources:

  • Human papillomavirus: What you should know Q&A sheet — English | Spanish | Japanese | Greek
  • Someone You Love, a documentary about families affected by HPV — Free viewing, courtesy of the Vaccine Education Center
  • “Cervical cancer can be eliminated. We must do more to prevent this deadly disease.” Arthur L. Caplan and Peter Hotez. CNN, Sept. 7, 2019.


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About the Author: Tung Chi