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Genital warts are warts that form in the genital area. They are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) in people who are infected with this virus. HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection. There are more than 100 types of HPV. Only a few types of HPV can cause genital warts.
HOW DO PEOPLE GET GENITAL WARTS?
People get genital warts through sexual contact. HPV can spread during sex, oral sex, or genital-to-genital contact. An HPV-infected person can pass HPV to both opposite- and same-sex partners.
Not everyone who has the virus develops warts. It is possible to spread or get these warts even when you cannot see them. Some HPV-infected people do not know that they carry the virus because they never develop genital warts.
It is important for people with genital warts to tell their partners before sexual contact.
WHAT DO GENITAL WARTS LOOK LIKE?
Some people who get genital warts get a single wart; more often, a group of warts appears. These warts may look like
small bumps scattered on the skin or a cluster that resembles cauliflower.
Most genital warts are:
- skin-colored or a bit darker
- raised or flat
- smooth or rough to the touch
- varying in size
Sometimes the warts itch, burn, or bleed.
WHO GETS GENITAL WARTS?
Approximately 79 million Americans are currently infected with HPV. Another 14 million people become newly infected each year. HPV is so common that most sexually active men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives.
Most people who become infected with HPV do not know it. They never develop genital warts because their body’s immune system naturally starts fighting the virus, so they never have any signs or symptoms. This is why an infected person can spread the virus to sexual partners without realizing it.
People who have a weakened immune system may not be able to fight the virus. A person’s immune system can be weakened by a medical condition such as cancer or HIV. Some medicines, such as those taken to prevent organ rejection for transplant patients, also weaken a person’s immune system.
When the body cannot fight HPV, genital warts can develop. These warts may not appear for weeks or months after
sexual contact with an infected person.
While rare, a pregnant woman who has genital HPV can pass the virus to her baby during delivery.
DO GENITAL WARTS ONLY APPEAR IN THE GENITAL AREA?
Genital warts most often appear for women in the external genitalia and for men on the penis, scrotum and thighs. In addition, warts can also form inside the vagina, anus, mouth, or throat.
HOW DOES A DERMATOLOGIST DIAGNOSE GENITAL WARTS?
A dermatologist will examine the warts during an office visit. Sometimes a dermatologist will remove a wart or part of it and send it to a laboratory to confirm the diagnosis.
HOW ARE GENITAL WARTS TREATED?
Dermatologists offer several treatments for genital warts. To choose the best treatment for the patient, a dermatologist
considers the number of warts, where the warts are located, and the patient’s overall health.
Some patients receive a prescription for medicine to use at home. Patients apply the medicine to the warts as directed. These medicines include podofilox (to stop the wart cells from growing), imiquimod (to boost the body’s immune system so that it can fight HPV), and sinecatechins (a green tea extract that clears the warts).
Treatment may also involve undergoing a procedure in the dermatologist’s office. During the procedure, the dermatologist may destroy the warts by freezing them with liquid nitrogen. The dermatologist also may cut out the warts or destroy them with a laser or electric current.
If these treatments are not successful, another available procedure is injecting an antiviral medication – interferon – into the warts.
WHY SHOULD GENITAL WARTS BE TREATED?
Some genital warts clear without treatment. Seeing a dermatologist for removal of warts has benefits because
- Reduces the risk of spreading the virus to others
- Alleviates discomfort. They can interfere with bowel movements, urination, and sexual intimacy
- Removes warts, which can be difficult to keep clean
Seeking treatment also lets a person know whether the growths are genital warts or cancer. Early diagnosis and
treatment offer the best outcome for cancers caused by HPV.
Do not try to treat genital warts without a medical diagnosis. Do not use medicine meant for treating other types of warts. Medicines that are good for treating common warts and foot warts are not good for treating genital warts. See a dermatologist for treatment of genital warts.
DOES TREATMENT CLEAR HPV?
Treatment removes the warts that you see, but treatment may not get rid of the HPV infection. If the HPV infection remains, the virus can spread to other people or cause HPV-related cancer. There is no test to find out if the HPV remains.
After treatment for genital warts, people should take these precautions:
- Use a condom (reduces risk of spreading HPV to others).
- (Women) Get Pap smears as recommended by your
Pap smears are important for women who have had genital warts. Pap smears remain the best way to detect early changes in the cervix, which can prevent death from cervical cancer. If a Pap smear is abnormal, follow-up is essential.
DOES HPV CAUSE CANCER?
The types of HPV that can cause genital warts are not the same as the types of HPV that can cause cancers.
Some HPV types that spread through sexual contact can cause a cancer inside or on the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, or throat.
There is no way to know which people who have HPV will develop cancer or other health problems.
CAN GENITAL WARTS BE PREVENTED?
There are things people can do to reduce their risk of getting genital warts.
- Get an HPV vaccine. These vaccines are given to males and females, usually when they are pre-teens, at (or before) 11 or 12 years of age and before a person’s first sexual encounter. The vaccines – there are two – can protect males and females against diseases (including cancers) caused by HPV. The vaccines are given over six months; it is important to get all three doses. Both HPV vaccines can help protect women from most types of cervical
- Use condoms. Condoms can significantly lower the risk of getting an HPV infection. Since HPV can infect skin that is not covered by a condom, a condom may not offer 100 percent
- Have as few sexual partners in your lifetime as This reduces your risk. HPV is so common that avoiding all
sexual activity is the only method that is 100 percent effective.
- Quit smoking. Research has found that smokers have a higher risk for getting genital warts than non-smokers.
WHY SEE A DERMATOLOGIST?
People often feel embarrassed by growths in their genital area and do not see a doctor. While some genital warts may clear without treatment, seeing a dermatologist can provide peace of mind and faster clearing.
A board-certified dermatologist is a medical doctor who specializes in treating the medical, surgical, and cosmetic conditions of the skin, hair, and nails. To learn more about genital warts or to find a board-certified dermatologist in your area, visit aad.org or call this toll-free number (888) 462-DERM (3376).
All content solely developed by the American Academy of Dermatology.
Copyright © by the American Academy of Dermatology and the American Academy of Dermatology Association.
Images used with permission of the American Academy of Dermatology National Library of Dermatologic Teaching Slides
American Academy of Dermatology
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