HPV Virus May "Reactivate" Later in Life

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

Anyone who had chicken pox as a child is at risk for developing shingle. From the time they developed chicken pox, the varicella zoster virus remains in the body but is undetectable until it reactivates later in life, causing shingles. A recent study suggests that the human papillomavirus (HPV) may do the same.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. There are more than 40 different types of HPV, although most people are not even aware that they have it. If you do develop symptoms, you may have genital warts or, less commonly, warts in the throat. Other forms of HPV can cause cervical cancer or cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis or anus. HPV is spread through sexual contact, including oral sex and genital to genital contact (without penetration or same-sex partners.) Gardasil is an immunization available for HPV.

Experts have believed that HPV clears up on its own in many women. Previous studies have shown that after 2 years, HPV is no often no longer detected. These studies are usually based on one or two negative tests. But a new research study, published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, may indicate that HPV remains dormant and undetectable for many years.

The study looked at 850 women between the ages of 35 and 60, all routinely received screening for cervical cancer from 2008 to 2011. Only 3 percent of the women in the study indicated they had had a new sexual partner within the six months preceding the study, however, HPV prevalence was higher in this group. The results showed that 90 percent of HPV infections were seen in women who reported having more than one lifetime sexual partner and 77 percent were seen in women who reported 5 or more sexual partners in their life.

Based on the results, researchers believe that there is a possibility that the infection reactivates later in life, increasing around the age of 50. This reactivation may be responsible for more HPV infections in older women than new infections.

Researchers also noted that women who had their first sexual experience prior to 1965 had a lesser risk of having HPV than those who first had sex later in the 1960s or the 1970s. This may be because those women who had their first sexual encounters during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s had more sexual partners than those who started prior to this time.

Understanding more about whether HPV reactivates, similar to the shingles virus, can help in determining screening recommendations as well as in creating better prevention strategies. Dr. Gravitt, the lead researcher of the study will continue to follow the women in the study but a larger, more comprehensive study will help to determine if the results can be duplicated on a national level.


Infectious Diseases Society of America (2012, December 13). HPV in older women may be due to reactivation of virus, not new infection.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Updated 2012, Aug. 9). Genital HPV Infection Fact Sheet.

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.