Genital warts are soft growths that appear on the genitals. They can cause pain, discomfort, and itching.
They are a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by low risk strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV). These strains, HPV 6 and HPV 11, are different from the high risk strains that can lead to cervical dysplasia and cancer.
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HPV infection is especially dangerous for people with vulvas because high risk strains can also cause cancer of the cervix and vulva.
Treatment is key in managing this infection.
Genital warts are transmitted through sexual activity, including oral, vaginal, and anal sex. You may not start to develop warts for several weeks or months after infection.
Genital warts aren’t always visible to the human eye. They may be very small and the color of the skin or slightly darker. The top of the growths may resemble a cauliflower and may feel smooth or slightly bumpy to the touch.
They may occur as a cluster of warts, or just one wart.
For people assigned male at birth, genital warts may appear in the following areas:
For people assigned female at birth, these warts may appear:
Genital warts may also appear on the lips, mouth, tongue, or throat of a person who has had oral sexual contact with a person who has HPV.
Even if you can’t see genital warts, they may still cause symptoms, such as:
If genital warts spread or become enlarged, the condition can be uncomfortable or even painful.
- There are 30 to 40 strains of HPV that specifically affect the genitals, but just a few of these strains cause genital warts.
- The HPV virus is highly transmittable through skin-to-skin contact, which is why it’s considered an STI.
- In fact, HPV is so common that the
CDCsays most sexually active people get it at some point.
- However, the virus doesn’t always lead to complications such as genital warts. In fact, in most cases, the virus goes away on its own without causing any health problems.
- Genital warts are usually caused by strains of HPV that differ from the strains that cause warts on your hands or other parts of the body.
To diagnose this condition, your doctor will do the following:
- Ask questions about your health and sexual history. This includes symptoms you’ve experienced and whether you’ve had sex, including oral sex, without condoms or oral dams.
- Perform a physical examination of any areas where you suspect warts may be occurring. Your doctor may be able to diagnose genital warts just by viewing them.
Your doctor may apply a mild acidic solution, called an acetowhite test, to your skin to help make genital warts more visible. It may cause a slight burning sensation.
If you have a vulva, your doctor may also need to perform a pelvic examination, because genital warts can occur deep inside your body.
While visible genital warts often go away with time, HPV itself can linger in your skin cells. This means you may have several outbreaks over the course of your life.
So managing symptoms is important because you want to avoid transmitting the virus to others. That said, genital warts can be passed on to others even when there are no visible warts or other symptoms.
You may wish to treat genital warts to relieve painful symptoms or to minimize their appearance. However, you can’t treat genital warts with over-the-counter (OTC) wart removers or treatments.
Your doctor may prescribe topical wart treatments that might include:
- imiquimod (Aldara)
- podophyllin and podofilox (Condylox)
- trichloroacetic acid, or TCA
If visible warts don’t go away with time, you may need minor surgery to remove them. Your doctor can also remove warts through these procedures:
- electrocautery, or burning warts with electric currents
- cryosurgery, or freezing warts
- laser treatments
- excision, or cutting off warts
- injections of the drug interferon
Don’t use OTC treatments meant for hand warts on genital warts.
Hand and genital warts are caused by different strains of HPV. Treatments designed for other areas of the body are often much stronger than treatments used on the genitals.
Using the wrong treatments may do more harm than good.
Some home remedies are touted as helpful in treating genital warts, but there is little evidence to support them. Always check with your doctor before trying a home remedy.
Any sexually active person is at risk of getting HPV. However, genital warts are more common for people who:
- have multiple sexual partners
- have weakened immune systems
- are under the age of 30
Genital warts are a low risk strain of HPV infection.
High risk strains such as HPV 16 and HPV 18 are implicated in a majority of cervical cancers. They can also lead to precancerous changes to the cells of the cervix, which is called dysplasia.
Other types of HPV may also cause cancer of the vulva. They can also cause:
To help prevent genital warts, HPV vaccines, condoms, and other barrier methods are available:
- Gardasil and Gardasil 9 can protect people of all genders from the most common HPV strains that cause genital warts, and can also protect against strains of HPV that are linked to cervical cancer.
- People from ages 9 to 45 can receive these vaccines. They’re administered in a series of two or three shots, depending on age. Both types of vaccine should be given before the person becomes sexually active, as they’re most effective before a person is exposed to HPV.
- Using a condom or a dental dam every time you have sex can also lower your risk of contracting genital warts. The important thing is to use a physical barrier to prevent transmission.
If you think you have genital warts, talk with your doctor. They can determine if you have warts and what your best treatment options are.
In addition, it’s important to talk with your sexual partner. This may sound difficult, but being open about your condition can help you protect your partner from also getting an HPV infection and genital warts.
Genital warts are a complication of a low risk HPV infection that’s common and treatable. They can disappear over time, but treatment is essential in preventing their return and possible complications.