What are genital warts?
Genital warts are growths on the surface of the skin or mucous membrane which occur in the genital area.
What causes genital warts?
HPV (human papillomavirus) causes genital warts. HPV is the name given to a group of viruses which are very common in humans. HPV is so common that almost all sexually active people will be infected with it at some point in their lives. There are over 100 type of HPV that can infect humans. Some HPV types cause genital warts while other HPV types cause warts on the hands or feet, or other areas. There are other types of HPV which do not cause warts or other obvious symptoms and most people with HPV will not be aware that they have it. The HPV virus is usually cleared by the body’s own immune system over time.
How do I know if I have genital warts?
Genital warts are not always noticeable. If they are they look like flesh coloured lumps or bumps on the skin, they can be small or large, raised or flatish, single or multiple, or can cluster in groups giving a cauliflower like appearance. They can occur on the vulva, vaginal area, cervix, penis, anal area, groin or buttocks. They are usually painless although rarely they may be slightly itchy or sore. They can also be inside the vagina or anus, or on the cervix and in that case people may not be aware they have them. Warts may appear a few weeks after infection or may take many months, or even years to appear after the person was infected. There is usually no way of knowing when someone was infected. Some types of HPV cause a subclinical infection of the cervix (meaning no obvious signs or symptoms). These can cause changes which are detected on Pap tests which if left untreated can eventually lead to cancer of the cervix (see SHFPACT info brocure on HPV & Cancer of the Cervix for more info). The HPV types which causes genital warts do not lead to cancer of the cervix.
How do you get genital warts?
HPV and genital warts are transmitted by skin to skin contact during vaginal or anal sex. It is possible but very rare for transmission to occur with oral sex. Warts which occur on other parts of the body are caused by different types of HPV virus and do not seem to cause genital warts.
How are genital warts diagnosed?
Genital warts are diagnosed by looking at them. There is no swab or blood test that can diagnose them. If you think that you may have genital warts it is important that you see a doctor about it to be diagnosed and to discuss treatment.
Treatment for genital warts
- Podophyliin Paint
This is a liquid that is applied directly to the warts should be used after diagnosis and assessment by a doctor. Several treatments are usually necessary and treatment is applied in cycles. Podophyllin must not be used inside vagina, urethra or anus and cannot be used in pregnant women. • Cryotherapy (freezing) This treatment is applied by a doctor or nurse and uses liquid nitrogen to freeze the warts. Several treatments are often needed.
- Laser Treatment
This is sometimes used for warts that are extensive, difficult to reach or are resistant to other treatment.
- Imiquimod cream
This is a cream that helps stimulate the immune system to destroy the cells infected with the wart virus. It is applied directly to the warts. It needs a doctor’s prescription and is relatively expensive, although some private health finds may cover it. The doctor may sometimes recommend a combination of treatments be used.
Can genital warts recur?
Treatment works by destroying the cells that contain the wart virus, however, it does not remove the virus from the body. It can therefore persist and warts may recur, requiring further treatment. In the majority of people the body’s own immune system will get rid of the virus over time and genital warts do eventually resolve and stop recurring.
Reducing transmission of the wart virus
The wart virus is most easily transmitted when there are visible warts present, although it is also increased just before they appear and just after treatment. Transmission can also occur with no visible warts present.
To reduce the risk of transmission it is best to avoid skin to skin contact with the affected area until the warts have been treated, and for a short time afterwards.
Can genital warts be prevented?
The Gardasil vaccine is a vaccine which is available in Australia and can prevent infection with four HPV types: two of the HPV types which cause 70% of cervical cancers and two of the HPV types which cause 90% of genital warts.The vaccine is most effective when it is given before any sexual activity occurs and is available through the National Immunisation Program for all boys and girls age 12-13. It is also available for people 14 years and older as a course of three vaccines through a GP, although there is a significant cost involved. If you are interested in the vaccine
The vaccine is most effective when it is given before any sexual activity occurs and is available through the National Immunisation Program for all boys and girls age 12-13. It is also available for people 14 years and older as a course of three vaccines through a GP, although there is a significant cost involved. If you are interested in the vaccine, discuss this with your doctor.
Dealing with genital warts
People can feel quite upset when they are diagnosed with genital warts or any sexually transmitted infection. They may describe feeling embarrassed, ashamed or dirty. These reactions are common and normal. Remember though that wart viruses are just viruses like the ones that causes colds. They very common, very easy to catch and it does not reflect on you as a person in any way at all. References: Australian STI Management Guidelines; Melbourne Sexual Health Centre; Cancer Council of Australia