Genital warts: Treatment, causes, and complications

Genital warts are contagious, fleshy growths in the genital or anal area. They are one of the most common types of sexually transmitted infection.

They are also known as venereal warts or condylomata acuminata. They are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), and they are a symptom of HPV.

Genital warts consist of fibrous overgrowths covered by a thickened, outer layer. They can appear around a man’s scrotum, anus, and penis, or a woman’s vulva, cervix, vagina, or anus.

They are usually benign, or non-cancerous, but some types can become cancerous in time.

In appearance, genital warts are often flesh-colored or gray swellings. If several cluster together, they may resemble a cauliflower. Some may be too small to be seen by the naked eye.

About 1 in 100 sexually active people in the United States have genital warts. Between 2011 and 2014, the prevalence of HPV was 7.3 percent amongst adults aged 18 to 69 years.

It is possible to have HPV without showing symptoms. Genital warts often appear about 3 months after infection. However, in some cases, there may be no symptoms for many years.

Fast facts on genital warts

Genital warts are contagious.

They are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infecting the skin.

The biggest risk factor for genital warts is unprotected sex.

Some genital warts respond well to topical medication.

1 in 100 sexually active people in the United States have genital warts.

Treatment

Genital wart
Genital warts are highly contagious.
Image credit:
Author George Chernilevsky, own work

A topical cream can remove most genital warts. Topical means that medicine is applied directly to the skin.

Doctors will only treat patients who have visible warts. The type of treatment depends on:

the location of the warts

the number of warts

the appearance of the warts

The following treatments are effective for removing genital warts:

Topical medication: A cream or liquid is applied directly onto the warts for several days each week. This may be administered at home or in a clinic. Treatment may continue for several weeks.

Cryotherapy: The warts are frozen, often with liquid nitrogen. The freezing process causes a blister to form around the wart. As the skin heals, the lesion slides off, allowing new skin to appear. Sometimes, repeated treatments are needed.

Electrocautery: An electric current is used to destroy the wart, generally under local anesthetic.

Surgery: The wart is excised, or cut out. A local anesthetic will be used.

Laser treatment: An intensive beam of light destroys the wart.

It is common for doctors to use more than one treatment at the same time.

Treatments are not painful but may sometimes cause soreness and irritation for up to 2 days. People who experience discomfort after treatment can take over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers for relief.

People who experience soreness may find that a warm bath helps to relieve discomfort. After a bath, the affected area must be dried completely. Patients should not use bath oils, soap, or creams until after the treatment is completed.

OTC treatments specified for non-genital warts are not suitable for the treatment of genital warts.

Genital warts will generally resolve without treatment. However, some presentations of genital warts grow and multiply if left alone.

Treating genital warts greatly reduces the risk of transmission.

Genital warts prevention
Being prepared with sexual protection can keep genital warts at bay.

To avoid catching or spreading genital warts, it is important for sexually active people to take preventive steps.

These can include:

abstinence from sexual contact

using protection, such as a condom or dental dam

women receiving the HPV vaccine

openly informing partners about genital warts

quitting smoking

It is crucial for sexually active people to practice safe sex. The genitals of either partner can seem to be HPV-free as no warts are present. However, the virus can still spread without visible symptoms.

Pap tests and genital warts

A Pap test, also known as a Pap smear, is a procedure to test for cervical cancer in women. The test involves collecting cells from the woman’s cervix. Cervical cancer is a possible complication of HPV infection.

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