What are genital warts?
Genital warts are a very common type of sexually-transmitted infection (STI) that cause small painless lumps near the genitals. They are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Not everyone who becomes infected with HPV develops visible warts. Genital warts can be removed with medication or simple procedures performed by your doctor. There is now a vaccination available that can protect against some of the most common strains of HPV that lead to genital warts.
Genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a sexually-transmitted infection (STI). Genital warts are very contagious. The virus that causes the warts can be spread by direct contact with the skin, which usually occurs during vaginal or anal sex. Even if you do not develop any visible warts, it is still possible to pass the virus onto others.
The time it takes for warts to develop after being infected with the virus can vary from person to person. Some people may develop them within a couple of weeks of being exposed to the virus, while others may get warts a year or more after infection. This means that it can sometimes be difficult to work out how you became infected.
Anyone who is sexually active can get the virus that causes genital warts. Some people may have a higher risk of getting the infection than others. You are more likely to get genital warts if you:
- Have multiple sexual partners;
- Have a partner who has had multiple sexual partners, and;
- Are a young adult.
Having multiple sexual partners can increase the risk of contracting genital warts.
There are more than 100 different strains of HPV, but only some of them cause problems. The most common types that lead to genital warts are HPV types 6 and 11. In females, types 16 and 18 can lead to changes in the cells around the cervix, which is associated with an increased risk of getting cervical cancer.
Signs and symptoms
Genital warts are painless lumps that grow near the genitals. They can be flat or raised and sometimes multiple warts can cluster together to form a cauliflower-like shape. Genital warts are not always visible.
In men, genital warts may appear:
- On the penis;
- On the scrotum;
- Inside the urethra, and;
- Inside or outside the anus.
In women, genital warts may appear:
- At the opening or inside the vagina;
- On the labia;
- On the cervix;
- On the vulva;
- Inside the urethra, and;
- Inside or outside the anus.
Visual appearance of genital warts on a man and woman.
Methods for diagnosis
Your doctor will usually make a diagnosis of genital warts after a visual examination of the warts. Sometimes they may take a small sample of tissue from a wart and send it off to a laboratory for testing to confirm the diagnosis.
Types of treatment
There are several methods available that can be used to remove genital warts. The type of treatment you will need depends on how many warts you have and where they are located. Unfortunately, removing the warts does not get rid of the virus and warts can sometimes reappear.
Treatment your doctor may consider are medications, such as podophyllotoxin or imiquimod, which destroy the wart or trigger the body’s immune system to fight off the infection that may then effectively eradicate the wart.
Cryotherapy is a procedure that uses liquid nitrogen to freeze individual genital warts. This is usually performed by a doctor in their office.
Laser therapy uses an intense light to burn off genital warts. This procedure can be performed under an anaesthetic to reduce the pain.
Oral and anal warts
The HPV virus can also be spread to other sites such as the mouth, throat and anus, depending on sexual practices, such as oral and anal sex. Warts can then develop in these other sites, where removal can pose more technical difficulties.
Some strains of the HPV are associated with an increased risk of developing cervical cancer. The strains of HPV that cause visible genital warts are not associated with an increased risk of cervical cancer. HPV infection does not always lead to cancer, but it is still important for women to have regular Pap tests to check for any abnormalities, which can lead to cervical cancer.
Genital warts and pregnancy
Almost all women who have had genital warts in the past do not have any related problems during pregnancy. It is possible for a mother to pass the HPV on to their baby during childbirth, although this is very uncommon. In rare cases, genital warts can grow very large during pregnancy. This may lead to problems giving birth naturally if the warts are so large they block the birth canal and vagina.
There is no cure for the virus that causes genital warts. The virus usually goes away by itself within one or two years. If warts appear, there are some treatment options available to remove them.
You can reduce your risk of getting the virus that causes genital warts by practising safe sex, which means using a barrier such as a condom when having sex. However, it is important to remember that condoms only protect the area of skin that they cover, so even with a condom there is still a chance of infection. The infection can also be spread even if there are no warts present.
Condoms can reduce the risk of HPV infection that causes genital warts.
A vaccine against HPV is usually given as part of the National Immunisation Program in Australia. The vaccine gives protection against HPV types 6 and 11, which are responsible for 90% of the cases of genital warts. The vaccine also offers protection against HPV types 16 and 18, which are high-risk factors for the development of cervical cancer. However, a vaccination does not protect against all the types of HPV that cause genital warts or cervical cancer. Pap tests are recommended for all women who have been sexually active, whether they have been vaccinated or not.
Last Reviewed: 03/10/2018
Your Doctor. Dr Michael Jones, Medical Editor.