What Are They?
Genital warts are warts that are located near or in the genital
areas. In a female, that means on or near the vulva (the outside
genital area), vagina, cervix, or anus. In a male, that means near
or on the penis, scrotum, or anus.
Warts appear as bumps or growths. They can be flat or raised,
single or many, small or large. They tend to be whitish or flesh
colored. They are not always easy to see with the naked eye, and
many times a person with genital warts doesn't know that they
Genital warts are caused by a group of viruses called HPV (short
). There are more than 100 types of HPV. Some of them cause the
regular kind of warts you see on people's hands and feet -
these common warts usually are caused by types of viruses that are
different from those that cause genital warts.
More than 30 types of HPV cause genital warts. Genital warts can
be passed from person to person through intimate sexual contact
(vaginal, oral, or anal sex). In some rare cases, genital warts are
transmitted from a mother to her baby during childbirth. You cannot
catch genital warts from a towel, doorknob, or toilet seat.
HPV infections are common in teens and young adults. As many as
1 in 2 people can have them. The more sexual partners someone has,
the more likely it is that the person will get an HPV
What Are the Signs and Symptoms?
Most HPV infections have no signs or symptoms. So someone can be
infected and pass the disease on to another person without knowing.
However, some people do get visible warts.
People often don't have any symptoms from genital warts -
the warts usually do not hurt or itch, which is one reason why
people may not know they have them. Doctors can diagnose warts by
examining the skin closely (sometimes with a magnifying glass) and
using a special solution to make them easier to see. A Pap smear (a
test that is performed during a
) and other tests can help diagnose an HPV infection.
Experts believe that when a wart is present, the virus is active
and more likely to be contagious. When the wart disappears, the
virus is still there but may be less likely to spread.
How Long Until You See the Symptoms?
A person who has been exposed to genital warts may have warts
appear any time from several weeks to several months after
exposure. Sometimes warts can take even longer to appear; the virus
can live in the body for a very long time without causing any
symptoms. Because many people who are infected with HPV don't
show any symptoms, it's important for anyone who is having sex
to get regular medical checkups.
What Can Happen?
Sometimes, if left untreated, genital warts may grow bigger
and multiply. Often, they go away on their own without
treatment - but this doesn't mean people can ignore
genital warts. Some types of genital warts are especially worrisome
for girls because HPV can cause problems with the cervix (the
opening to the uterus that is located at the top of the vagina)
that may lead to cervical cancer.
Since HPV can have such serious consequences, girls who have had
sex should see a gynecologist, who can test for HPV with a Pap
How Are Genital Warts Prevented?
The only surefire way to prevent genital warts is abstinence
(the decision not to have sex). Teens who do have sex can get
some protection by properly using a latex
every time they have any form of sexual intercourse (vaginal, oral,
or anal sex). Condoms may not give complete protection because the
virus can spread from the areas of the genitals not covered by the
condom. Condoms also reduce the risk of other
sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
as well as pregnancy.
The U.S. government has approved a
that protects against some of the strains of HPV that can
cause cervical cancer.
How Are They Treated?
There is no cure that will get rid of the HPV virus completely.
But treatments can reduce the number of warts - or help them go
away faster. When the warts disappear, the HPV virus is still
there, though it may not spread as easily. If you are having sex,
think you may have genital warts, or if you have had a partner who
may have genital warts, you need to see your doctor or
gynecologist. If the warts are not obviously visible, doctors can
detect the presence of HPV in girls through a Pap smear. Doctors
can examine a guy to see if he has warts.
Your doctor will do an examination, make a diagnosis, and then
provide treatment, if necessary. There are a number of different
treatments. Depending on where the warts are located, how big they
are, and how many there are, your doctor can treat them in several
ways. Some genital warts can be treated by putting special
medications on them. If warts are large, the doctor may carefully
"freeze" them off by using a chemical or laser treatment
to remove them.
Because HPV lives in the skin, warts can come back. So you may
need to visit the doctor again. Anyone with whom you've had sex
also should be checked for genital warts.
Not all bumps on a person's genitals are warts. Some can be
pimples, some can be other types of infections or growths. An exam
by a doctor can help determine what a bump is.
Almost everyone who gets a genital wart gets upset, and it's
normal to be worried. Talk to your doctor or nurse about what it
means to have HPV and what you can do.
Neil Izenberg, MD
Date reviewed: July 2006
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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