Genital warts are caused by the sexually transmitted infection known as the human papillomavirus (HPV). Genital warts are transmitted easily by sexual contact, including oral, penile-vaginal (coital), and anal sex. HPV infection is the most common STI in North America and may cause cervical, penile, and anal cancer. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that at least 50% of sexually active individuals will contract a genital HPV infection at some time in their lives.[i]
After a person has been infected by HPV, it may take from several weeks up to a few months for the warts to appear. This long incubation time makes HPV particularly dangerous in that it can make it difficult to determine the infection date and source. Some infected individuals may be asymptomatic and never develop actual warts. Genital warts look like small pink, red, and/or white growths in or around the genitals. The warts may vary in appearance, from looking like the top of cauliflower to being very tiny and difficult to see. In some cases, the bumps might be raised, while in other cases they might be flat. They often appear in groups of three or four and may grow and spread rapidly. While most warts are painless, others may cause pain, bleeding, and itching. In women, genital warts can develop on the outside and the inside of the vagina, on the cervix, or around the anus. In men, warts may appear on the shaft or tip (glans) of the penis, on the scrotum, or around the anus.1 There is a possibility that genital warts can also develop in the mouth or the throat of a person who has performed oral sex on an infected person. The presence of oral HPV is now on the rise due to the increasing popularity of unprotected oral sex, which should be noted as a risky sexual behavior unless partners are using a barrier method of STI protection (eg. the condom).
People who have visible warts or who suspect a chance of infection should be examined by a doctor and treated as necessary. The doctor may perform a number of tests to check for genital warts, including an examination of the vulva, penis, scrotum, or anus. In addition, an application of a mild acetic acid solution (similar to vinegar) will highlight any existing warts that are less visible. The doctor may also perform a complete pelvic exam and a pap smear (for women) and an examination of the rectum.
Unfortunately, there is currently no treatment that can completely eliminate the virus that causes genital warts. Your doctor may remove warts by applying chemicals such as Trichloracetic acid, by freezing them with liquid nitrogen, utilizing electrocautery, or by performing laser therapy. Prescription creams such as Podofilox cream/gel and imiquimod cream are available in some cases for in-home care.1 These prescription creams may reduce the frequency of recurring outbreaks because they boost the person’s immune system.1 If a wart is too large or difficult to treat, surgery may be necessary. A person should not refrain from seeking additional professional help if the warts reappear after treatment.
Condoms can provide some protection in preventing the spread of genital warts if used correctly. But condoms are not 100% effective in preventing the transmission of warts because they do not cover the entire penis or surrounding areas. Areas like the scrotum and anus can still transmit genital warts to one’s partner because those areas are not protected by the condom.
Gardasil® is the first vaccine available for the prevention of HPV. It is given as a series of three shots and protects against infection from four common strands of the virus, including two (HPV-6 and HPV-11) that account for about 90% of genital warts.1 The vaccine is highly recommended for women and girls between 9 and 26 years in age, and is also recommended to men and boys in order to prevent the spread of cervical cancer-causing HPV in women.?
1. Greenberg, J. S., Bruess, C. E., & Oswalt, S. B. Exploring the Dimensions of Human Sexuality. Jones & Bartlett Learning. 2014. Print.
Last Updated 15 April 2014.