Warts are caused by viruses and can appear anywhere on the body. Those that show up in the genital area are caused by the human papillomavirus, commonly called HPV, and are easily transmitted by sexual contact.
HPV infection is the most common sexually transmitted disease (STD) in North America. Certain forms of the virus can cause cervical, rectal, and penile cancer. According to the CDC, at least 50% of sexually active men and women will get a genital HPV infection at some point in their lives.
After a person has been infected, it may take one to three months (or longer in some cases) for warts to appear. Some people who have been infected never get warts. If you think you have been infected, see your doctor, even if you cannot see warts.
What Are the Symptoms of Genital Warts?
Genital warts are not always visible to the human eye. They may be very small and flesh-colored or slightly darker. The top of the growths may resemble a cauliflower and may feel smooth or slightly bumpy to the touch.
Genital warts on males may appear:
- on the penis
- on the scrotum
- on the groin
- on the thighs
- inside or around the anus
Genital warts in females may appear on:
- the inside of the vagina or anus
- the outside of the vagina or anus
- the cervix
Genital warts may also appear on the lips, mouth, tongue, or throat of a person who has had oral sexual contact with an infected person.
Even if you cannot see genital warts, they may still cause symptoms, such as vaginal discharge, itching, bleeding, or burning. If genital warts spread or become enlarged, the condition can be very painful and uncomfortable.
Causes of Genital Warts
The main cause of genital warts is – Human papillomavirus, that infects the top layers of your skin.
To some extent, excessive use of tobacco and alcohol, may lead to formation of genital warts.
Premalignant and malignant cervical cancers in women, also increases the chances of occurring of genital warts.
A person with sexual transmitted disease are more prone to get affected by genital warts.
Genital warts most commonly occur in persons undergoing stressful conditions.
In some cases, use of birth control pills, increased sexual contact without the use of barrier protection, multiple sex partners, and having sex at a early age, may lead to genital warts.
About two-thirds of people who have sexual contact with someone already having genital warts.
How do they spread?
Genital warts can be spread during vaginal or anal sex, and by sharing sex toys. But you don’t need to have penetrative sex to pass the infection on because HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact.
Read more about the causes of genital warts.
It can take months, or even years, for warts to develop after infection with HPV. So if you’re in a relationship and you get genital warts, it does not necessarily mean your partner has been having sex with other people.
HPV is most likely to be transmitted to others when warts are present, although it is still possible to pass the virus on before the warts have developed and after they have disappeared.
Condoms do not provide complete protection because it is possible for the skin around your genital area not covered by the condom to become infected.
How are genital warts diagnosed?
Genital warts are fairly common. Approximately 500,000 new cases of genital warts are diagnosed each year in the U.S. A typical appearance of a genital wart may prompt the physician to treat without further testing, especially in someone who has had prior outbreaks of genital warts. Most genital warts are caused by HPV-6 and HPV-11, the so-called “low risk” HPV types.
Genital Warts Treatment
There are many ways to treat genital warts: some involve using a medicine and some involve a procedure. Even with treatment, it is possible that the warts will come back within a few weeks or months. This is because treating the warts does not necessarily get rid of all of the virus (HPV) causing the warts. Some cells in the normal-appearing genital skin and vagina may remain infected with HPV. There is currently no treatment that will permanently get rid of HPV in all infected cells, but most people will clear the virus and the warts with their own immune systems within two years.
The “best” treatment for warts depends on how many warts you have, where they are located, and you and your doctor or nurse’s preferences. Warts do not necessarily need to be treated, especially if they are not bothersome.
Medical treatments — Medical treatments include creams or liquids that you or your doctor or nurse must apply to the wart. All of these treatments must be used one or more times per week for several weeks, until the wart(s) goes away.
Podophyllin — Podophyllin is a treatment that destroys the wart tissue. A doctor or nurse applies the solution directly to the wart(s) with a cotton swab, and you should wash the area one to four hours later. The treatment is repeated weekly for four to six weeks, or until the lesions have cleared. Side effects range from mild skin irritation to pain and skin ulcers. Podophyllin is not used in pregnant women.
Podofilox — Podofilox is similar to podophyllin, but you can apply podofilox (Condylox) at home. Using a cotton swab, you apply a gel or liquid solution to the wart(s) twice daily for three days in a row. Then you use no treatment for the next four days. You can repeat this cycle up to four times until the warts have gone away. Podofilox is not used in pregnant women. Side effects of podofilox are similar to those of podophyllin.
Bichloroacetic acid and trichloroacetic acid — Both bichloroacetic acid (BCA) and trichloroacetic acid (TCA) are acids that destroy the wart tissue. TCA is used most commonly, and must be applied by a doctor or nurse. The provider applies the acid to the wart once per week for four to six weeks, or until the warts go away. Side effects of TCA include pain and burning. TCA is safe for use during pregnancy.
Imiquimod — Imiquimod (Aldara) is a cream that triggers the immune system to get rid of the wart. You can apply the cream directly to the wart (generally at bedtime), and then wash the area with water six to 10 hours later. You use the cream three days per week for up to 16 weeks. Mild irritation and redness are normal while using imiquimod, and mean that the treatment is working. Imiquimod is not recommended during pregnancy.
Interferon — Interferon is a medication that causes an immune response. It is available in several treatment forms (injection, topical gel), but studies have shown that it most effective when given as an injection into the wart.
Side effects of interferon include flu-like symptoms, fatigue, lack of appetite, and pain. Interferon is not usually recommended as a first-line treatment. It may be used in combination with surgical and/or other medical treatments, especially with warts that do not improve with other treatments. Interferon is not safe during pregnancy.
Sinecatechins — Sinecatechins (eg, Veregen) is a botanical product that can be self-administered. The exact mechanism of action of catechins is unknown, but they have both antioxidant and immune enhancing activity. The ointment is placed on each external wart three times each day for up to 16 weeks. It should not be used in the vagina or anus, in immunocompromised women, or in women with active herpes. It should be washed off of the skin before sexual contact or before inserting a tampon into the vagina, and it can weaken the latex in condoms and diaphragms.
In trials of this therapy, 5 percent of users discontinued the drug due to side effects and almost 90 percent reported local application site reactions, some of which were severe (itching, redness, pain, inflammation, ulceration, swelling, burning, , small blisters).
Surgical treatment — Surgical treatments include treatments that remove the wart (called excision) and treatments that destroy (freeze, burn) the wart. These treatments are often used in combination. Some surgical treatments can be done in the office while others are done in the operating room. Surgical treatments are considered safe in pregnancy, and may be recommended for:
●Warts that do not respond to medical therapy
●Large areas of warts, where medical therapy alone is often inadequate
●Warts involving the vagina, urethra, or anus
●Areas that have pre-cancerous changes in addition to warts
Cryotherapy — Cryotherapy uses a chemical to freeze the wart. The treatment can be done in the office, and does not usually require any anesthesia.
Cryotherapy often causes pain during the procedure; other side effects can include skin irritation, swelling, blistering, and ulceration. Cryotherapy can be used during pregnancy.
Electrocautery — Electrocautery uses electrical energy to burn away warts. Treatment is usually done in an operating room using local anesthesia to prevent pain.
Excision — Excision involves using surgery to remove the wart. Most people are treated in the operating room using anesthesia to prevent pain. Rarely, excision causes pain, scarring, and infection.
Laser — Lasers produce light energy, which destroys warts. Physicians who perform laser treatment require specific training and specialized equipment. Laser treatment is done in the operating room using local anesthesia to prevent pain.
Laser therapy may be recommended if you have multiple warts spread over a large area. Risks of laser surgery include scarring, pain, and changes in the skin (usually lightened color).