Thursday, November 21, is the Great American Smokeout, a day to abstain from smoking — and, one hopes, to quit for good. “That’s great,” you say, “but what do cigarettes have to do with sexually transmitted diseases?”
First, let’s talk about HPV. Human papillomavirus (HPV) is known as the “common cold of STDs” — because pretty much every sexually active person will contract it, even people with very few sex partners. Aside from complete abstinence, the best way to avoid an HPV infection is to be vaccinated with Gardasil, which protects against four common HPV strains — two that cause genital warts, and two that cause certain cancers, such as cervical cancer and oropharyngeal cancer. You can further reduce risk by using condoms and dental dams during all sexual activities, limiting sexual partners, and choosing partners who have had few or no previous partners — however, these risk-reduction methods don’t guarantee that you’ll remain HPV-free.
Harmful chemicals from cigarettes can end up in your cervical mucus!
If you’re sexually active, you could have contracted HPV without ever knowing about it. Most infections are asymptomatic (meaning that you never develop symptoms) and transient (meaning that they go away on their own after a year or two). When symptoms do appear, they can manifest as genital warts, penile skin lesions, cervical abnormalities, and signs of cancer elsewhere on the body. And, sometimes, an HPV infection can become persistent, meaning that it doesn’t go away. Luckily, there are steps you can take to decrease risk of developing HPV symptoms, and to increase your chances of fighting off an HPV infection. And one of those things is to quit smoking!
Cigarettes Affect More Than Just Your Lungs
Most of us know cigarettes have chemicals that can cause cancer. We mostly think of lung cancer, which makes sense: As we inhale the smoke, these chemicals come into direct and prolonged contact with the tissues in our lungs, increasing risk for cancerous mutations. But smoking cigarettes affects more than just your lungs — it can affect your entire airway, and, unfortunately, other parts of your body, including areas below the belt.
One type of cancer that HPV can cause is oropharyngeal cancer — which affects the mouth or throat. In these cases, HPV usually has been spread by unprotected oral sex — and its development into cancer can be exacerbated by smoking. If your mouth has had contact with anyone else’s genitals over the years — especially if there wasn’t a piece of latex between your mouth and those genitals — you could be at risk for oropharyngeal cancer.
How does smoking harm parts of your body beyond your mouth, throat, and lungs? Surprisingly, cigarette products, such as nicotine, can wend their way into cervical mucus, suggesting a possible mechanism by which smoking can affect the development of the types of cervical abnormalities that are detected by Pap testing. A study found that a cancer-causing chemical found in cigarette smoke, benzo[a]pyrene (BaP), is also present in cervical mucus, where it can interact with HPV. While this study only examined cervical cells in a Petri dish — not in humans — the authors postulate that BaP aids in viral replication, possibly hastening the development of cancer.
For decades now, researchers have noted an association between smoking and cervical cancer. For example, a large study published last year followed thousands of women for 13 years and found that smoking did indeed increase cervical cancer risk, especially in women who had been smokers for at least a decade or who smoked 20 or more cigarettes a day.
What about other types of cancer? Smoking can increase risk for cancers beyond those of the lung, throat, mouth, or cervix — it is thought to increase risk for anal cancer and penile cancer, both of which can be caused by HPV. It also raises risk for developing genital warts: Smokers’ immune systems are less likely to be able to fight off a genital wart infection, and in the case of a persistent infection, smokers’ warts are more likely to return even after being removed by a health care provider.
So, whether you’ve never touched a cigarette in your life, or are a former smoker, the decision not to smoke reduces risk for genital warts and a variety of HPV-associated cancers.
Smoking Interferes with Immunity
Your immune system is a wondrous work of evolution, which has developed over time to keep you safe from microbes, cancer cells, and other dangers. Unfortunately, smoking interferes with your immune system’s ability to do its job.
The tar and other chemicals in cigarettes make it difficult for your immune system to fight off other infections — including an HPV infection that might be able to cause warts or cancer. And, if you’re unlucky enough to develop cancer, your immune system is less equipped to attack it.
What’s the Point of Quitting?
Maybe you’ve been smoking for decades by now; you might wonder if there’s even a point to quitting or if the damage has already been done. Fortunately, it’s always a good time to quit, and you’ll start reaping the benefits immediately. For example, in just 12 hours, the carbon monoxide level in your lungs returns to normal, and within months the cilia in your lungs regain their functionality. In just a year, your increased risk of coronary heart disease is cut in half.
And, five years after quitting, your risk of oropharyngeal cancer falls by half, and your risk of cervical cancer returns to that of a nonsmoker. So, no, it’s never too late to quit!
Arizonans looking for help quitting smoking can seek out Planned Parenthood’s smoking-cessation programs or the University of Arizona’s ASHLine. Nationwide, the National Cancer Institute has a list of other resources that can help you begin the process of quitting. Although the Great American Smokeout serves as an opportunity for individuals to kick the habit, or for groups to quit together, any day is a good day to quit smoking.
Click here to check out other installments of our monthly STD Awareness series!