If you’ve noticed soft pink or flesh-colored bumps around your genital area, you may be going through a genital warts outbreak. Genital warts are cauliflower-like growths caused by certain types of the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is the most common viral sexually transmitted disease in the United States.
Although HPV isn’t curable, genital warts are treatable. You can also go extended periods of time without an outbreak, but it’s not possible to get rid of the warts forever. That’s because genital warts are only a symptom of HPV, which is a chronic, lifelong infection. Even with treatment, warts may come back in the future.
HPV symptoms take a while to show, so warts may not appear until weeks or months after infection. In some cases, genital warts can take years to develop. Outbreaks can happen in or around the vagina or anus, on the cervix, in the groin or thigh area, or on the penis or scrotum. HPV can also cause warts on your throat, tongue, mouth, or lips.
For some people, genital warts may clear up on their own within two years, but treatment helps speed up the process.
Treatment can also prevent possible health complications caused by HPV, as well as:
- ease pain, itching, and irritation
- lower the risk of spreading HPV
- get rid of warts that are hard to keep clean
Genital warts can be treated by a doctor in a number of different ways. Topical treatments, prescription medications, and minor procedures can help clear up an outbreak.
Over-the-counter wart removers won’t work on genital warts, and may cause more discomfort. Genital warts require a special type of topical treatment that can be prescribed by your doctor. Those creams include:
Podofilox: Podofilox is a plant-based cream used to treat external genital warts and stop wart cells from growing. You should apply podofilox to the wart tissue at least twice daily for three days, then let the area rest for the remainder of the week. You may need to repeat this treatment cycle four times.
Podofilox is one of the more effective topical creams in clearing warts. According to one study, outbreaks in nearly half of the people using the cream improved by 50 percent or more. Twenty-nine percent of participants saw their warts clear completely.
But like all medication, podofilox does come with side effects, including:
- blistering, crusting, or scabbing
Imiquimod: Imiquimod is prescription cream that’s used to destroy external genital warts, as well as certain skin cancers. You should apply the ointment directly to the warts at least three days a week for about four months.
Side effects of imiquimod include:
- scabbing and flaking
Sinecatechins: Sinecatechins is a cream made from green tea extract that’s used to clear up external genital and anal warts. You should apply the ointment three times per day for up to four months.
Side effects of sinecatechins are similar to other topical treatments. They include:
With cryotherapy, your doctor will remove the warts by freezing them with liquid nitrogen. A blister will form around the wart, which will shed once it heals. Cryotherapy is effective in clearing outbreaks temporarily, but multiple treatments may be necessary to achieve long-term results.
You can go right back to your normal activities after the procedure, but expect a lot of watery discharge for up to three weeks as the area heals.
Side effects of cryotherapy include:
- mild burning
Electrodessication is a treatment that needs to be performed by a specialist. Your surgeon will use an electrical current to burn and destroy external genital warts, then scrape away the dried tissue.
It’s considered to be a painful procedure, so you may be given a regional anesthetic or go under general anesthesia.
Research has found the surgery to highly effective. According to one study, 94 percent of people who had six weekly sessions of electrodessication were clear of genital warts. Healing time takes four to six weeks.
Side effects include:
- skin color changes of treated area
Laser surgery is also a specialist procedure. Your surgeon will use a laser light to burn away wart tissue. You may require local or general anesthesia depending on the size and number of warts. Laser surgery is used to destroy large genital warts or hard-to-access warts that can’t be treated by other procedures. Recovery should take two to four weeks.
Side effects include:
Most HPV infections that cause genital warts will go away on their own, taking anywhere from a few months to two years. But even if your genital warts disappear without treatment, you may still have the virus.
When left untreated, genital warts can grow very large and in big clusters. They are also more likely to return.
You should wait to have sex at least two weeks after your warts have cleared. You should also talk to your sexual partners about your HPV status before engaging in sexual activity.
Even if you aren’t dealing with an outbreak, you can still spread HPV through skin-to-skin contact. Wearing a condom will reduce your risk of transmitting HPV. This includes dental dams and male or female condoms.
Although genital warts can clear on their own, HPV may still be in your body. Treatment will help get rid of warts and reduce future outbreaks, though you may have to repeat treatments to clear warts completely.
It may take a few months to treat the warts, and you could go years without an outbreak. Make sure to wear a condom every time you have sex, as HPV can spread without warts present.