WHAT WE TREAT
Genital warts are a common symptom of certain types of HPV (human papilloma virus), affecting about 360,000 people each year.
Although genital warts are not dangerous, they may cause discomfort in the genital area.
Fortunately, genital warts are treatable. However, there is no cure for HPV.
What Are Genital Warts?
Both men and women can develop genital warts. You may see genital warts anywhere in the genital region, including the vagina, vulva, cervix, penis, testicles, rectum, and anus. Warts may appear in clusters, or you may have just one wart. In addition, not all individuals infected with HPV will get genital warts. Therefore, the virus may be transmitted without a carrier’s knowledge. In these cases, a person may develop genital warts without knowing who they contracted HPV from. Genital warts may also not develop immediately after HPV is transmitted. They can appear weeks or even months after the initial infection.
The types of HPV that cause genital warts are not the same as those that can later cause cervical cancer in women. In fact, most strains of human papilloma virus are not dangerous and will resolve on their own with few or no symptoms. There are 30-40 strains of HPV that are sexually transmitted, but only a few can cause genital warts. Still, it is important to seek medical attention for genital warts, since they can cause discomfort. They are also more likely to spread when warts are present on the skin. Both men and women are vulnerable to sexually transmitted strains of HPV, but testing and treatment of these conditions can vary between men and women.
Signs and Symptoms
The most significant sign of genital warts is small, white or skin-colored bumps on the skin in the pelvic area. These growths are soft and fleshy, but they may feel smooth or bumpy and rough on the surface. Sometimes, genital warts can resemble small pieces of cauliflower. While genital warts are mostly seen in the genital area, they can spread to the face and mouth of another individual after oral sex.
Particularly if they spread or grow larger, genital warts can be physically uncomfortable. They may also cause the following symptoms:
Vaginal discharge in women
Itching and irritation
Sensation of burning skin
Bleeding during or after intercourse
The above symptoms may be your first indicators of genital warts, if warts appear in an area where they are not easily seen, such as the vagina or the anus.
How Genital Warts Are Spread
Genital warts are caused by HPV. HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that spreads through skin to skin contact with a partner. Intercourse does not need to occur for HPV to spread and wearing a condom does not fully protect you from infection. With genital warts, the risk of transmission increases when warts are present on the skin during sexual contact.
It’s important to understand that even if you no longer see warts on your skin, you may still have HPV. Warts may also come back, or you may only get them once.
Any sexually active individual has a risk of getting genital warts. However, there are factors that can elevate your risk:
Having multiple sexual partners
Having a weakened immune system
Using cigarettes and alcohol (both can reduce your body’s immune response)
Having a mother who had genital warts or HPV during childbirth
Being under the age of 30
Having broken or damaged skin
Your doctor will diagnose genital warts with a visual examination of the affected area. Women may also have an HPV screening during a pelvic exam. There is no FDA-cleared screening to identify HPV in men. However, men are still able to contract HPV and get genital warts, so it’s important to talk to your doctor if you have symptoms or elevated risk factors.
Treatment and Care
If you have genital warts, you may choose not to receive treatment at all, since your immune system will most likely fight off the infection, and you will no longer have symptoms. However, warts may be causing discomfort, or you may be worried about passing them on to your partner. For women with genital warts who are pregnant, your doctor will most likely recommend treatment, since genital warts can pose complications during childbirth including a risk of transmitting the infection to your baby.
If you decide treatment is the right choice for you, there are several options available.
Chemical treatment applied by a doctor or nurse in a clinical setting
Prescription ointment applied to the affected area over the course of several weeks
Surgical removal of the warts
Cryotherapy (freezing the warts off)
Electrocautery (burning the warts off)
Injections of interferon into affected areas
Some treatments will take longer to be effective, and certain treatments can be uncomfortable or painful. One thing you should never attempt is to self-treat genital warts with over-the-counter medications intended for warts on the hands or feet. These can cause more harm than good, so always talk to your doctor about the right treatment options for your needs.
When to See a Doctor
Bumps in the genital area may not always be genital warts, so you should see a doctor to address any abnormal growths in this area. Growths may be benign moles, papules, or even pimples. They may also be signs of other sexually transmitted infections. You should also see your doctor regularly for STI screening to ensure your ongoing sexual health. If you have symptoms like itching, burning, or discomfort during intercourse with no visual skin changes, you should still make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.
How to Reduce Your Risk
It isn’t possible to fully prevent genital warts, but you can use good practices to protect your sexual health and reduce your risk. There is also a vaccine available to protect men and women from the most common strains of HPV that cause genital warts as well as those that cause cervical cancer. You may be able to receive this vaccine until age 45, so talk to your doctor to learn if it’s right for you. In addition, follow these practices for STI risk prevention:
Use condoms and other forms of physical birth control. These will minimize contact during intercourse. However, they will not fully eliminate the risk.
Talk openly with your partner(s) about your sexual health and your screening history.
Get tested regularly if you are sexually active.
Do not have sex when you or your partner has visible warts.
Don’t smoke. Smoking reduces your body’s immune response and can make genital warts more likely to come back once they’ve cleared up.
If this is a medical emergency, please call 911. For mental health emergencies, call 988.