What Is It?
Genital warts are a form of sexually transmitted disease (STD), caused by a subtype of the same virus that causes other warts. This virus is the human papilloma virus (HPV). Genital warts also are known as condyloma acuminate or venereal warts. They can develop anywhere near the vagina, cervix, genitals or rectum. Genital warts are spread through sexual activities, and can affect both men and women.
Because genital warts can take six months to develop, you can have the infection without having any symptoms. Human papilloma virus also causes virtually all cases of cervical cancer worldwide. The subtypes that are most likely to cause cancer are different from those that usually cause warts. However, many people are infected with more than one subtype. Therefore, people with genital warts are more likely to be infected with a cancer-causing virus as well.
Genital warts appear on moist surfaces, especially at the entrance of the vagina and rectum in women. In men and women, they can appear anywhere in the genital or anal area. They may be small, flat, flesh-colored bumps or tiny, cauliflower-like bumps. Individual warts usually measure 1 millimeter to 2 millimeters in diameter, but clusters can be quite large. In some cases, warts can be so small that you can’t see them. Genital warts may not cause any symptoms, or they may cause itching, burning, tenderness or pain.
Your doctor will ask about your medical history and about your sexual habits and any prior episodes of STDs. Your doctor will then examine you to look for evidence of genital warts. A vinegar-like solution placed on the skin turns the warts white and makes diagnosis easier. Other diagnostic tests may include:
- Tissue biopsy — A small piece of tissue is removed and examined in a laboratory.
- Colposcopy — An instrument called a colposcope is used to magnify and inspect possible warts in the vagina and on the cervix.
- Papanicolaou (Pap) smear
All sex partners also should be screened for the infection.
Genital warts may go away on their own or with treatment, or they may last for years. It is common for genital warts to return after they are removed.
The best way to prevent genital warts is to avoid sex or have sex with only one uninfected partner. Using condoms also may help to prevent infection. However, condoms can’t always cover all affected skin. Factors that increase your risk of becoming infected include:
- Having other STDs
- Multiple sex partners
- Certain vitamin deficiencies
- Medications or medical conditions that suppress the immune system, such as AIDS
If you have had genital warts, you should be screened for cervical cancer at least once every year. Cervical cancer can be prevented with regular screening (Pap smears), and can be cured in most cases when it is detected in early stages.
Treatment depends on the size and location of the warts. Even though the warts may be removed, the underlying viral infection can’t be cured, which is why the warts often return. Some of the medications used to treat genital warts cannot be used during pregnancy, so it’s important to tell your doctor if you could be pregnant.
Small warts may be treated topically with medications applied to the skin. In some cases, applying liquid nitrogen (cryotherapy) to warts will freeze the tissue and make warts disappear. Some larger warts require laser treatment, or surgical removal. Do not treat genital warts yourself with nonprescription drugs used for wart removal on hands, because these chemicals can make the genital area very sore. Your doctor may prescribe a topical medication that you can use at home. Apply this medication carefully to avoid damaging surrounding healthy tissue, keep it out of your eyes and wash it off after four hours. Your doctor also may suggest that you apply a protective coating of petroleum jelly on delicate surrounding tissue before you apply your prescribed medication. In some cases, your doctor may use a small needle to inject alpha-interferon into each wart. Alpha-interferon injections are usually considered only if other treatment methods are unsuccessful or if warts come back after being removed. You will be told to avoid sexual relations until treatment is completed.
When To Call A Professional
Contact your physician if you notice warts or bumps on your genital area, or if you have itching, burning, tenderness or pain in that area. Call your doctor immediately if you develop signs of infection, such as fever, chills or muscle aches.
Genital warts may go away on their own or with treatment. Recurrence is common. Certain strains of the virus (HPV), which causes genital warts, cause virtually all cases of cervical cancer worldwide, though only a small percentage of the women who become infected will develop cancer. Cervical cancer develops slowly over decades. If you have genital warts, you are also likely to have been infected with a cancer-causing strain of the virus. You should be sure to get Pap smears regularly.
Diseases and Conditions Center
All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.