What are genital warts?
Genital warts are similar to common warts but are usually found around or in the vagina, cervix (the lower part of the uterus), penis, scrotum, rectum, or the area between the vagina and rectum. They are soft, fleshy, small growths on the skin.
How do they occur?
Like other warts, genital warts are caused by a virus. The virus that causes genital warts is called human papillomavirus (HPV). There are many types of HPV. The types of virus that most often cause genital warts are called HPV-6 and HPV-11.
Genital warts are more contagious, or more easily spread, than other warts. They are spread by skin-to-skin contact. They may spread to other nearby parts of the body and they may be passed from person to person by sexual activity. The warts are usually first seen 1 to 6 months after you have been infected with HPV. However, you can be infected with HPV without having any visible warts.
HPV can cause changes in a woman’s cervix. Most of the time these changes are harmless, but sometimes the changes may cause cervical cancer.
What are the symptoms?
Genital warts are small, flesh-colored, grayish white or pinkish white growths. You may have many warts or just 1 wart. The warts usually appear as thin, flexible, solid bumps on the skin that look like small pieces of cauliflower. Some warts, however, are quite small and flat and may not be easily noticed.
In women, warts can grow in the vulva (the folds of skin around the opening of the vagina), on the cervix, inside the vagina or urethra, or around the anus. In men, warts can grow on the tip or shaft of the penis and sometimes on the scrotum, in the urethra (the tube that carries urine out of the body), or around the anus.
You may have no other symptoms or you may also have:
- a bad smell, mild irritation, burning, itching, or pain in the vulva or vagina
- pain with intercourse
- increased vaginal discharge
- bleeding (from injury to warts during sex)
When genital warts are on the cervix or in the vagina, they may not cause any noticeable symptoms. However, a Pap test may show changes in the cells that suggest a viral infection, or your healthcare provider may see them during the exam.
How are they diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will examine your genital area and the warts. Your provider may put a liquid on the skin to make it easier to see warts. An instrument called a colposcope may be used to magnify the area so your provider can look more closely at the skin or the cervix. A sample of tissue may be taken for lab tests to help confirm the diagnosis. A scope may be used to check for warts in the bladder and the urethra.
Often warts that cannot be seen are diagnosed when women have a Pap test. Sometimes an HPV-DNA test may be done to see if the type of HPV causing the warts is the type associated with cervical cancer.
How are they treated?
The main methods of treatment are:
- putting medicine on the warts
- surgically removing the warts
- freezing the warts with liquid nitrogen (cryotherapy)
- destroying the warts with a laser
- burning off the warts using a wire loop and electric current (electrocautery)
- waiting to see if the warts go away on their own
You may need a local anesthetic to numb the area before some of these treatments.
How long will the effects last?
Sometimes the warts may go away without treatment. They may, however, grow and form larger cauliflower-like clusters of warts.
Removal of the warts does not get rid of the virus. Because you will still have the virus after treatment, other warts can grow.
Some types of HPV infection can lead to cancer of the cervix, vagina, or vulva in women. The HPV-6 and HPV-11 types of virus, which are the usual cause of genital warts, rarely lead to cancer and are called low-risk HPVs.
How can I help take care of myself?
- Keep the genital area clean and dry. You can use a hair dryer to help dry the area.
- Wash your hands thoroughly after touching the area with warts.
- Do not scratch the warts.
- Get follow-up exams according to your healthcare provider’s recommendations.
- Women should have a Pap test as often as their healthcare provider recommends.
How can I help prevent the spread of genital warts?
The best way to prevent the spread of HPV is by not having sex.
A vaccine is available to prevent the most common low-risk types of HPV infections that can cause genital warts and the most common high -risk HPV types that can cause cancer of the cervix. If you already have HPV, the vaccine will not cure your infection, but it will help keep you from getting infections with several other types of HPV.
The HPV vaccine is approved for girls and women 9 to 26 years old. It is recommended for all girls 11 to 12 years old as part of their routine immunization schedule. It is given in 3 shots. The vaccine may protect against HPV for 5 years. Researchers are doing studies to see if a booster shot is needed after 5 years.
The vaccine is usually not given to pregnant women.
Here are some other things you can do to help prevent HPV or its complications:
- Women: Get an exam and Pap test every year.
- Do not have sexual intercourse until you are married or over the age of 18.
- Use latex or polyurethane condoms during sex. Even after your warts are gone, you can infect your partner because the virus is still in your body. Condoms can reduce the risk of getting genital warts from another person, but HPV can spread from areas not covered by a condom.
- Have just one sexual partner who is not sexually active with anyone else.
- Avoid sexual contact until the genital warts or HPV is completely treated and healed.
- Do not smoke. Studies show that smoking increases the risks and problems related to HPV infection.
Developed by David W. Kaplan, MD, and RelayHealth. Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-02-07
Last reviewed: 2010-11-23 This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional. References
Pediatric Advisor 2011.4 Index
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.