Genital warts are caused by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is the name of a group of viruses that includes more than 150 different types that cause infection on the skin surface. Certain types of HPV cause warts on the hands or feet, while others can cause visible genital warts. Genital warts are specifically caused by HPV type 6 & 11.
Genital warts are small fleshy growths or bumps that can appear ‘cauliflower’ shaped. In women they can appear on vulva, inside the vagina and on the cervix. In men the warts can appear on the penis and scrotum. Warts can also affect the groin, thigh and anus in both sexes.
If you are sexually active, evidence suggests that at some point during your life you will suffer with some form of HPV infection, though not necessarily genital warts. Most HPV infections will go unnoticed and will clear up spontaneously without the need for treatment.
Genital warts are usually spread by direct, skin-to-skin contact during vaginal or anal sex. It is also possible, but rare, to transmit them to the mouth by oral sex.
Warts on the hands and other areas of the body are caused by different strains of HPV, not the same ones responsible for genital warts. Contact with these warts on other areas of the body does not seem to cause genital warts.
If you have unprotected sex with someone with genital warts, you are at risk of catching HPV and developing them yourself. You can still get genital warts even if you use a condom, depending on the area they affect in your sexual partner. Not everyone who is exposed to HPV 6 or 11 will go on to develop genital warts, however if you do they can take weeks or even months to develop. This can make it hard to know exactly when or from whom you got the virus.
External genital warts are normally noticed by either examining the area visually or by touch. In some cases in cane be difficult to know, especially if the warts are flesh coloured. Sometimes people do not notice warts because they are inside the vagina, or on the cervix, or in the anus Only rarely do they cause symptoms such as itching, pain, or bleeding.
Sometimes genital warts will be found during an examination for a different condition. For women, an abnormal cervical smear may be the first warning sign that HPV is present, though a cervical smear is not a test for HPV.
Genital warts can be normally be self-diagnosed after the first outbreak which should be reviewed by a healthcare professional. If you are in any doubt you should see your GP or local sexual health clinic for a formal diagnosis.
Your partner should inspect themselves for signs of genital warts. If they have any visible external genital warts they should seek treatment. You should try to avoid sexual contact until both of your cases of genital warts have cleared up, however if this is not possible you should use a condom.
Genital warts don’t always require treatment; a lot of cases will slowly clear up on the own. However, due to the sensitive nature of the condition, which can often be unsightly and embarrassing, many people seek treatment to speed up the process. Treatment should aim to remove all the externally visible warts and hence also relieve any uncomfortable symptoms.
The available treatments for genital warts from The Independent Pharmacy are:
Podophyllotoxin (Warticon) - available as a solution and a cream. Warticon is applied twice daily for three days followed by a four day break, and continued for around four of these weekly cycles, though more may be necessary. Warticon burns away the wart tissue and removes each wart indiviually - it does not fight the HPV infection or reduce the chance of recurrence. The solution is normally recommended for men only as it is can be difficult for women to self-apply. Warticon cream may be more appropriate for women suffering with external genital warts.
Imiquimod (Aldara) cream can be used to treat external genital and perianal (around the groin and anus) warts. It is easy and safe to use for both males and females. Aldara is applied three times weekly for up to 16 weeks. Aldara stimulates the immune system to fight the HPV infection present in the skin. It can take longer to treat an outbreak of warts than Warticon, however treatment with Aldara cream has been shown to reduce the chances of a recurrent outbreak.
If you are pregnant or think you might be, you should see your own GP for extra checks.
You should not use over-the-counter wart treatments that are not specifically for genital warts. These are not meant for sensitive genital skin.
It is recommended to avoid sexual contact with the infected area during treatment, to protect the treated area of skin from friction and help it heal.
Genital wart treatment aims to remove the external warts but it does not kill the HPV virus. This means that in some cases the virus can lie dormant and recur at a later date, although this is not always the case. It can take several treatment cycles to completely get rid of genital warts. Unfortunately there is no cure for HPV itself.
The strains of HPV linked to cervical cancer are not usually the types linked with genital warts (HPV 6 & 11). However, a woman with genital warts, like any other sexually active woman, should have regular smears to check their cervix.
HPV vaccination and regular cervical smears are the best safeguard against cervical cancer. Cervical smears detect abnormal cells present on the surface of the cervix. Cancer almost always can be prevented through the early detection and treatment of abnormal cervical tissue.
Genital warts very rarely cause problems during pregnancy and delivery. However due to changes in the body during pregnancy, warts can grow in size and number. If you have genital warts or think you may have been exposed to genital warts and you are or may be pregnant, you should see your GP for further advice and treatment.
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