Information About Genital Warts

Genital warts, or venereal warts, are one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases. The warts appear as small flesh-colored growths and may cause genital itching and discomfort. The virus responsible for genital warts, human papillomavirus (HPV), is associated with cervical cancer and other potentially serious health conditions. Genital warts are treated with topical medications or surgical removal.

  1. Significance

    • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that about 20 million American men and women are currently infected with HPV, and as many as 1 percent of sexually active adults have an active genital wart infection at any given time. At least half of all sexually active adults acquire genital warts during their lifetime. Most people infected with genital warts are not aware they carry the virus and are likely to spread the infection to sexual partners. Women who contract HPV are at increased risk of developing cervical cancer, which is responsible for more than 4,000 deaths each year. A vaccine is now available to protect women against the four types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers.

    Symptoms

    • Genital warts can develop anywhere on the moist tissues of the genitals. In women, the warts may grow on the walls of the vagina, the vulva, the cervix and on the area between the genitals and the anus. Men develop genital warts on the shaft or tip of the penis, on the scrotum or on the anus. Symptoms include genital itching or discomfort, bleeding during sexual intercourse, and the appearance of a single wart or clusters of warts. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, genital warts can be smooth or rough and can appear flesh-colored or be darker than the surrounding skin. Depending on location and size, genital warts might cause no symptoms.

    Causes

    • A sexually transmitted virus known as HPV infects the top layers of skin and causes genital warts to appear. While there are more than 100 types of HPV, only a few are responsible for genital warts. The infection spreads through direct contact, usually during sexual intercourse. HPV is highly contagious, infecting approximately two-thirds of people who are exposed to the virus, according to the Mayo Clinic. Unprotected sex with multiple partners, becoming sexually active at an early age and having another sexually transmitted diseases all increase the risk of genital wart infection.

    Treatment

    • When genital warts cause no discomfort or other symptoms, treatment is not always necessary. As many as 30 percent of cases clear up without medical treatment, although the virus remains in the body and the warts may reappear at any time. Topical medications are typically the first line of treatment. Imiquimod is a cream that works by boosting the body's immune system to help fight off the infection. Podophyllin and podofilox are ointments that destroy genital wart tissue, and trichloroacetic acid works by burning genital warts off the skin. Large warts, especially when they occur during pregnancy, may need surgical removal. Electrocautery, cryotherapy, laser treatments and surgical excision are surgical options for removing genital warts.

    Warning

    • While genital warts themselves may cause no symptoms, the virus responsible for genital warts can have very serious health consequences. HPV is closely linked with cervical cancer and cancers of the penis, anus and vulva. However, infection with HPV does not always cause cancer. Pregnancy can trigger a dormant HPV infection or worsen an active infection with the virus, and genital warts can cause serious problems during pregnancy. Warts present during pregnancy may enlarge and interfere with urination, and genital warts on the vaginal wall can decrease the ability of the vagina to stretch during childbirth. In some cases, an infected mother can transmit genital warts to her baby, resulting in throat infection and airway obstruction in a condition called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis. When this occurs, surgical removal of the warts might be necessary.

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