Genital warts

What are genital warts?

Genital warts are warts caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). They are sexually transmitted, and the HPV infection is the most common sexually transmitted disease in North America. Condyloma is the state of having genital warts caused by the HPV virus. Another word for genital warts is venereal warts.

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How dangerous are genital warts?

Genital warts by themselves are typically not dangerous. Many people want to have them removed because of cosmetic reasons. However, having warts means that you have the HPV virus, which also means you can spread the virus to your sexual partners.

Genital warts and pregnancy

Having genital warts or HPV does not affect a woman’s fertility or ability to carry a normal healthy pregnancy.

How are genital warts spread?

The warts are caused by the HPV virus, which is an extremely common sexually transmitted virus. HPV is spread from any form of sexual contact or skin-to-skin contact. Most sexually active adults will get HPV at some point in their lives, and most of the time they have no symptoms. Therefore, finding out you or your partner has HPV is not indicative of fidelity. In most cases, HPV infection clears on its own, but in other cases some HPV infections cause genital warts or cancers.

Signs of genital warts

Genital warts do not look very different from warts on any other part of the body. They are small growths that can be red, pink, or flesh-colored. Genital warts are usually are not painful but can cause discomfort, mild pain, bleeding, irritation, or itching. They can occur in clusters of 3 or 4, and can spread or grow larger fairly rapidly.

Genital warts appear anywhere on the genitals. There is no way to predict where they can appear. For women, genital warts can appear inside or outside the vagina, on the cervix, or around the anus. For men, genital warts can appear anywhere on the penis (head, shaft, foreskin, etc), the scrotum, or around the anus. Genital warts can also appear in or around the mouth, spread from oral sex.

How are genital warts diagnosed?

Genital warts are diagnosed primarily visually. A doctor will examine the growths to check that they are consistent with the appearance of genital warts (as opposed to a tumor, for example). Your doctor will also probably check all areas of your genitals, to check for growths that you may have missed. In some cases, your doctor might need to take a biopsy (take a sample of the growth), to make sure that it is not pre-cancerous. Testing for the HPV virus is not recommended, because it would not make a difference in your treatment options.

How are genital warts treated?

Treatment for genital warts means removing the warts. However, removing the warts does not get rid of the HPV virus which originally caused the warts in the first place. This means that the warts can come back at a later time. Currently there is no way to kill the HPV virus.

Removing the warts can be done with laser therapy, surgically removing them, freezing the warts off, or applying chemicals. Research has shown that there is no superior method of treatment – the type of treatment chosen is dependent on you and your doctor. There are some treatments that you can apply yourself, if you prefer to do them in the privacy of your own home. However, it is important to get the correct medications and instructions from your doctor.

Sometimes the warts go away on their own, and you can choose not to treat the warts at all if they are not causing any problems for you. However, keep in mind that without treatment, the warts could spread or get bigger.

How can you prevent genital warts?

Abstaining from sex is the only way to completely prevent any chance of genital warts, but for many people, this is not a feasible option. Using protection – like condoms – during sex can reduce the chances of getting the HPV virus, but it is not fully protective since HPV can infect areas where the condom does not cover.

There is a vaccine for HPV that prevents you from getting HPV, but it is only effective if you have not been exposed to HPV before (you have not been sexually active). The vaccine is approved for females 9-26 years old and males 11-21 years old.

Genital warts and cancer

Genital warts rarely progress to cancer. If your doctor is unsure about the growth, he/she will do a biopsy to determine whether the growth is a wart or a tumor. In addition, although HPV can cause anal or cervical cancer, the types of HPV that causes genital warts are different from the types of HPV that cause cancers. Therefore, there is no link between having genital warts and getting cancer.

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