Genital Warts

What are genital warts?

Genital warts are similar to common warts but are found around or in the penis, rectum, vagina, or cervix. They are single or multiple soft, fleshy, small growths on the skin. They are more contagious than other warts. They are considered the most common sexually transmitted disease and can affect both sexes.

How do they occur?

Like other warts, genital warts are caused by a virus. The name of the virus that causes genital warts is human papillomavirus, or HPV.

Genital warts may spread to other nearby parts of the body and they may be passed from person to person by sexual activity. They are spread by skin-to-skin contact. They are more contagious, or more easily spread, than other warts. Genital warts are usually first seen 1 to 6 months after you have been infected, but can sometimes take years to develop.

What are the symptoms?

In women, warts can grow in moist surfaces such as the entrance to the vagina, 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.

Genital warts are flesh-colored, grayish white, or pinkish white. They usually appear as thin, flexible, solid bumps on the skin that look like small pieces of cauliflower. Some warts, however, are small and flat and may not be easily noticed.

Sometimes the warts may disappear on their own without treatment. They are more likely, however, to grow and form larger cauliflowerlike clusters of warts. You may have no symptoms, or you may have occasional mild irritation, burning, itching, tenderness, foul smell, pain with intercourse, increased vaginal discharge, or bleeding.

When genital warts are on the cervix or in the vagina, they may not cause any noticeable symptoms. However, a Pap test may show cell changes that suggest a viral infection.

How are they diagnosed?

Genital warts on the skin are usually seen and recognized. Your health care provider may put a liquid on the skin to make it easier to see the wart. An instrument called a colposcope will magnify the area so your provider can look more closely at the skin or the cervix. A sample of skin 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 smear test.

How are they treated?

It is very important that both sexual partners receive treatment if they have genital warts. Treating just one partner is not very effective because the other partner will reinfect the treated partner.

The main methods of treatment are:

  • putting a prescription medicine on the warts at home.
  • treating each wart with TCA, which is a stronger acid that is done in the office by Dr. Hardy or the Nurse Practitioner.
  • surgically removing the warts, which is performed by Dr. Hardy either in the office or as an outpatient surgery.
  • freezing the warts with liquid nitrogen (cryotherapy)
  • destroying the warts with a laser performed by Dr. Hardy as an outpatient surgery.
  • burning off the warts using a wire loop and electric current (electrocautery).

Removal of the warts does not get rid of the virus. Because you will still have the virus after treatment, the warts could come back. Genital warts that persist or come back after standard treatment may be treated with interferon shots. Interferon is a medicine that boosts the body's immune response and helps keep viruses from multiplying.

How long will the effects last?

Genital warts can be successfully treated and removed. However, in some people the warts may reappear weeks or months later. If the warts reappear, they need to be retreated or removed again.

Certain types of wart infection of the cervix can lead, in time, to cervical cancer in some women. This is one reason why a regular Pap smear test is so important.

What can I do to help prevent the spread of genital warts?

To prevent the spread of warts to other areas of the body or to other people:

  • Keep the genital area clean and dry. You can use a hair dryer to help dry the area.
  • Don't scratch the warts.
  • Avoid sexual contact until the warts are completely healed.
  • Use latex or polyurethane condoms during sexual intercourse. Condoms can reduce your risk of getting genital warts, but warts can spread from areas not covered by a condom.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after touching the area with warts.

How Do I prevent getting genital warts?

There are many ways to help prevent genital warts. They include:

  • Avoid having sex at all.
  • Have sex only with someone you know does not have genital warts and is having sex only with you.
  • use condoms to help prevent transmission, however, condoms do not cover all affected skin.
  • Talk to your health care provider about becoming vaccinated to the HPV virus with Gardasil. It is a 3 shot vaccination process that protects you against 4 types of the HPV virus. First shot can be given in the muscle of the upper arm at anytime. The second shot is 2 months after and the third and final shot is 6 months after the first one. The recommended age for the vaccination is ages 9-26 yrs old. It is preferable to have the vaccine before a woman has become sexually active.
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