Definition

Genital warts are growths or bumps that appear:

  • On the vulva
  • In or around the vagina or anus
  • On the cervix
  • On the penis, scrotum, groin, or thigh
  • In the mouth or throat (rare)

The warts may be raised or flat, single or multiple, small or large. Some may cluster to form a cauliflower-like shape. This condition is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Most people will be exposed to a form of HPV at some point in their lives. Not everyone will become infected or develop symptoms.

Genital Warts

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Causes

Genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a family of more than 80 common viruses. Many types of HPV cause harmless skin warts . These warts are often found on the fingers or feet. Only a few types are thought to cause genital warts.

HPV is easily spread during oral, genital, or anal sex with an infected partner. About two-thirds of people who have sex with a partner who has genital warts will also develop them. Warts can take several weeks or months to appear.

Risk Factors

Risk factors for HPV and genital warts include:

  • Age 15-30 years old
  • Multiple sexual partners
  • Women whose first male sexual partner has had two or more previous sexual partners
  • Sex without condoms
  • Sex at an early age
  • Skin-to-skin contact with an infected partner
  • Previous history of genital warts
  • Pregnancy
  • Smoking
  • Taking oral contraceptives

Symptoms

Genital warts often look like fleshy, raised growths. They have a cauliflower shape. They often appear in clusters.

In women, warts may be found in the following areas:

  • Vulva or vagina
  • Inside or around the vagina or anus
  • Cervix

In men, warts are less common. If present, they are usually found in these areas:

  • Tip or shaft of the penis
  • Scrotum
  • Around the anus

The following symptoms may also occur:

  • Bleeding
  • Itching
  • Irritation
  • Burning
  • Secondary bacterial infection with redness, tenderness, or pus

Complications of HPV

Cancer

Most strains of HPV that produce genital warts do not cause cancer. But certain strains may cause cervical cancer . Less commonly, cancers of the vulva, anus, or penis occur. It is important for women to have yearly Pap tests . This test can detect any HPV related problems.

Pregnancy and Childbirth Complications

Genital warts may get larger during pregnancy. This may make it hard to urinate. Warts in or near the vaginal opening may also block the birth canal during delivery.

Diagnosis

Genital warts may be diagnosed by:

Visual Exam

A doctor can diagnose genital warts by looking at them. If external warts are found on a woman, then the cervix is usually also checked. A doctor may use a special solution to help find lesions that do not have classic features.

Pap Test

If you get abnormal Pap test results, this may indicate HPV. But, your doctor will order more accurate tests, like a colposcopy , to diagnose HPV.

Colposcopy and Biopsy

During a colposcopy, the doctor uses a special device to see if warts are in the cervix and vagina. For a biopsy , the doctor takes a tissue sample and tests it.

HPV Testing

During an HPV test , a swab of cells from the affected area can be checked for certain types of HPV.

Treatment

Your treatment depends on the size and location of the warts. Treatment helps the symptoms, but does not cure the virus. The virus stays in your body. Warts or other problems may recur.

Treatments may include:

Topical Treatments

Your doctor may recommend one of these medications to be applied to the affected areas:

Cryosurgery, Electrocautery, or Laser Treatment

Methods that instantly destroy warts include:

  • Cryosurgery (freezing)
  • Electrocautery (burning)
  • Laser treatment

These methods are used on small warts and on large warts that have not responded to other treatment. A large wart can also be removed surgically. For warts that keep coming back, an antiviral drug, called alpha-interferon, can be injected into the wart.

Prevention

The only way to completely prevent HPV from spreading is to avoid physical contact with an infected partner.

Latex condoms may help reduce the spread of HPV infection and genital warts. Condoms are not 100% effective. They do not cover the entire genital area.

Other ways to prevent infection include:

  • Abstaining from sex
  • Having a monogamous relationship
  • Getting regular check-ups for STDs
  • For women, getting regular Pap tests (starting at age 18 or at the start of sexually activity)

Vaccine

A new vaccine , Gardasil, prevents infection by some, but not all, of the HPV strains that cause cervical cancer. The vaccine is routinely recommended for girls 11-12 years old. It has been found safe for females 9-26 years old.

In trials, the vaccine was linked to a reduced number of precancerous lesions on the cervix.

Special Considerations

Genital warts are rare in children. This diagnosis may indicate sexual abuse. Abuse needs to be reported.