Genital Warts

Genital warts are a sexually transmitted infection (STI).1 They can be transmitted through sexual contact such as oral, penile/vaginal, and anal sex.1 However, transmission can also occur merely through skin to skin contact with someone who is already infected.1 Typically, genital warts appear on the skin in the genital or anal area.1 They are treatable and quite common; around 360,000 people contract genital warts each year.1

Symptoms

The characteristic symptoms of genital warts are small, skin-colored bumps in or around the genital area; many say that genital warts resemble cauliflower.2 The warts can vary in appearance and size. Some may be tiny and difficult to see, while others may be larger and more visible. In some cases, the bumps may be raised, while other genital warts may be flat. They often appear in groups of three or four, and may grow and spread rapidly. Genital warts can be painless, but they can also cause itching, burning, and pain.2 However, HPV can be asymptomatic, meaning that people with HPV may not feel or see symptoms such as bumps. After a person has contracted HPV, it may take several days or weeks and possibly up to years for warts to appear.3 This incubation time makes it particularly dangerous and difficult to determine the transmission date and source; some individuals with HPV may never develop actual warts.

 For most women, genital warts can develop on the outside and the inside of the vagina, on the cervix, and around the anus.2 For most men, warts may appear on the shaft or tip glans of the penis, on the scrotum, or around the anus.2 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 individual with HPV.The presence of oral HPV has risen 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 for STI protection, such as condoms

Pregnancy and Genital Warts

During pregnancy, genital warts may cause some difficulties. Although rare, the warts may cause problems such as irritation when urinating if they are enlarged.2 Due to the changes in hormones during pregnancy, the warts may bleed and increase in quantity.3  If the warts interfere with the birth canal, a cesarean section (C-section) may be necessary in order to deliver the baby.3 During childbirth, the warts may also affect the vaginal tissues’ ability to stretch.2 Additionally, bleeding can occur when warts on the vulva or vagina are stretched during child delivery.2 Although rare, HPV can cause warts to grow in the baby’s throat.2 This may block their airway and cause difficulty breathing.2 However, these cases are not common. 

Treatment

People who have visible warts or who suspect a chance of infection should be examined by a doctor and treated as necessary. You can get tested for genital warts at your doctor’s office, a health clinic, or a Planned Parenthood health center in your area.1 The doctor may also perform a complete pelvic exam and pap smear (for females).2 

Unfortunately, there is currently no treatment that can completely eliminate the virus that causes genital warts.3 A health professional may remove the warts by applying a chemical, prescribing a cream that is applied manually,  freezing or burning the warts, or by cutting the warts off.1 Over-the-counter medicine designed for other warts should never be used on your genital warts.3  If the warts reappear after treatment, seek additional professional help.

Prevention

Condoms are an effective barrier method that can provide some protection in preventing the spread of genital warts. Although condoms are not completely effective in preventing the transmission of warts, they significantly lower the risk of contracting an infection. The scrotum and other regions of skin can still transmit genital warts to one’s partner if they cannot be properly covered by a condom.

In addition to using barrier methods, there is a vaccine that can prevent the contraction of some HPV strains altogether; this vaccine is called Gardasil and is administered throughout three separate vaccinations.2 It protects against the contraction of HPV strains that cause cancer.2 These vaccines should be administered before one becomes sexually active, as this ensures that the vaccine will work most effectively against future contact.2 After receiving the vaccine, some may experience muscle soreness at the injection site, headaches, symptoms similar to the flu, dizziness, or fainting.2 In addition to getting this vaccine, using condoms and dental dams when engaging in sexual activity will decrease the probability of being infected.1 Regardless of if an individual is showing genital warts or not, one should always use a barrier method, such as a condom, during sex. 

Concluding Remarks 

 Genital warts are a common infection caused by contracting the human papillomavirus (HPV) through skin to skin contact. Genital warts typically appear as small, skin-colored bumps that resemble cauliflower.2 The bumps vary in size and appearance and usually appear in clusters and spread throughout the genital region. Genital warts can cause some difficulties during pregnancy, such as bleeding and interference with child delivery. There are various types of treatment available to remove genital warts, but they can not be fully cured as the virus will stay in your body even after treatment.1 A vaccine is available to prevent genital warts, which all sexually active individuals are recommended to get. Using protection at all times when engaging in sexual activity is one of the best ways to reduce the risk of contracting genital warts. 

References

  1. Planned Parenthood. “Genital Warts: STD Symptoms, Treatment and Removal.” Planned Parenthood.
  2. Mayo Clinic Staff. “Genital Warts.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.
  3. Office on Women’s Health. “Genital Warts.” Office on Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Last Updated 12 November 2019.