What to know about genital warts

Genital warts are contagious, fleshy genital or anal growths. They are among the most prevalent types of sexually transmitted infection.

They are also known as condylomata acuminata, or venereal warts. The human papillomavirus (HPV) causes them, and they are a symptom of HPV.

Genital warts are fibrous overgrowths that are concealed by a thickened, outer layer. They could show up around the scrotum, anus, and penis of a man, or vulva, cervix, vagina, or anus of a woman.

They are generally benign, or non-cancerous, but in time, some types may become cancerous.

In appearance, genital warts are often swellings of flesh or gray colour. They may resemble a cauliflower if several clusters together. Some may be too small for the naked eye to view.

In the United States about 1 in 100 sexually active people have genital warts. The prevalence of HPV among adults aged 18 to 69 years was 7.3 percent between 2011 and 2014.

HPV can occur without showing any symptoms. After infection, genital warts often appear some 3 months. In some cases, however, symptoms may not have been present for many years.

Fast facts on genital warts

  • Genital warts are contagious.
  • They are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infecting the skin.
  • The biggest risk factor for genital warts is unprotected sex.
  • Some genital warts respond well to topical medication.
  • 1 in 100 sexually active people in the United States have genital warts.

Treatment

Genital warts are highly contagious. Image credit:
Author George Chernilevsky

Most genital warts can be removed by a topical Cream. Topical means medicinal products are applied directly to the skin.

Doctors can treat only patients whose warts are evident. Type of treatment is defined by:

  • the location of the warts
  • the number of warts
  • the appearance of the warts

For the removal of genital warts the following treatments are effective:

  • Topical medication: A cream or spray is applied for several days each week directly onto the warts. This can be done at home, or in a clinic. Treatment can last several weeks.
  • Cryotherapy: The warts, often with liquid nitrogen, are frozen. The freezing process causes the Wart to form a blister. The lesion slides off as the skin heals, allowing new skin to show up. Repeated treatments are sometimes needed.
  • Electrocautery: The wart is damaged by an electric current, usually under local anesthetic.
  • Surgery: The wart is either excised, or cut. They’ll use a local anesthetic.
  • Laser treatment: The Wart is destroyed by an concentrated light beam.

It is normal for doctors to concurrently take more than one procedure.

Therapies are not harmful, but can occasionally cause up to 2 days of soreness and discomfort. People who experience discomfort after treatment can take relief painkillers by over- the-counter (OTC).

People experiencing soreness can find a warm bath helping to relieve discomfort. The area affected has to be fully dried after a bath. Patients should not use bath oils, soap, or creams until they have finished the treatment.

For treating genital warts, OTC therapies listed for non-genital warts are not suitable.

Generally, genital warts will resolve untreated. Yet some genital warts presentations are growing and multiplying if left alone.

Treatment of genital warts greatly reduces transmission risk.

Opening condom
Having sexual security prepared will keep genital warts at bay.

It is important for sexually active people to take preventive measures to avoid catching or spreading genital warts.

These can include:

  • abstinence from sexual contact
  • using protection, such as a condom or dental dam
  • women receiving the HPV vaccine
  • openly informing partners about genital warts
  • quitting smoking

Practicing safe sex is important for sexually active people. Any partner’s genitals may seem to be HPV-free since there are no warts. The virus, though, can still spread without any visible symptoms.

Pap tests and genital warts

A Pap test, also known as Pap smear, is a cervical cancer test procedure for females. The test involves the selection of cervix cells from the woman. A potential risk of the HPV infection is cervical cancer.

Women are expected to have HPV vaccines and routine pelvic and Pap examinations. These may also detect cervical and vaginal changes that may be caused by the genital warts that begin.

HPV vaccinations do not protect against all types of HPV. Women are advised to continue attending screenings after vaccination.

Causes

Like other warts, genital warts are caused by more than 100 types of HPV which infect the skin’s top layers. Only a small number of strains have the potential to cause genital warts.

Those who cause genital warts are highly contagious and transmitted to a person who has HPV through sexual contact. This trait is not carried by other types of HPV.

It is estimated that up to 65 percent of people who have sex with someone with genital warts will get infected.

Complications

HPV may alter the structure of infected cells and may lead to additional complications.

Cancer: HPV infection involves cervical cancer, as well as vulva, anus, penis, mouth, and throat cancer. Not all HPV infections lead to cervical cancer but attending regular Pap screenings is crucial for a woman’s long-term health.

Problems with pregnancy: There is a small risk that during childbirth, a mother may pass on genital warts. Papillomatosis may occur in the laryngeal.

A newborn with papillomatosis on the laryngeal may have genital warts in the mouth. Hormonal changes during pregnancy can also cause the growth, bleeding or multiplication of genital warts.

Risk factors

The following would increase the risk of genital warts being contracted:

  • having unprotected sex
  • having unprotected sex with many different people
  • having sex with a person whose sexual history is unknown
  • oral sex
  • starting sexual relations at a young age
  • having stress and other viral infections at the same time, such as HIV or herpes

Diagnosis

A doctor should usually be able to diagnose genital warts by looking at them.

The test can require a look inside the vagina or anus. The doctor may do a wart biopsy on rare occasions.

People should take a check-up if:

  • they have genital warts
  • the person with symptoms recently had unprotected sex with a new partner
  • the person with symptoms or their partner have had unprotected sex with an individual outside of the relationship
  • the partner of the person with symptoms advises that they have an STI
  • there are symptoms of a sexually transmitted infection (STI)
  • the patient is pregnant or trying to conceive

Even if no warts are found, the doctor or nurse can ask the patient to return at a later date. After infection, visible warts may not show up immediately.

Some genital warts are so tiny that only a colposcopic inspection of the cervix and vagina, or a Pap smear, will detect them. A colposcope is a visual apparatus used for detailed examination of the cervix

Outlook

Genital warts are not dangerous, but may show the HPV present. Certain types of HPV can cause cancer. Removing the warts may help prevent transmission but the virus may remain even if any visible warts go away with treatment.

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