Genital Warts: What You Should Know

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You may not think of warts as a disease, but they are a disease, one that is transmitted by a virus. Genital warts are warts that grow on the genitals or around the anus and are considered to be a sexually transmitted disease.

All types of warts are caused by viruses that are in the family of human papillomaviruses (HPV). You get infected by an HPV from someone who is already infected. There are more than 100 different types of HPVs, and several them are known to cause cervical cancer in women. The types of HPV that cause genital warts are not the types that cause cancer, but you can be infected by several different types of HPV, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. In other words, you may have genital warts and also have the kind of HPV that is linked to cervical cancer.

There are many kinds of warts, and people often have warts on their hands or feet. These are caused by a different HPV than the ones that cause genital warts. You cannot get genital warts by touching yourself or someone else with a wart from elsewhere on your body.

Genital and anal warts look like rough little bumps that are the same color as the skin or mucus membrane around them. You may see one wart or a cluster of them. Sometimes, these warts are too small to be seen, but you can still spread the virus from them to another person. The warts usually show up within a few weeks or months of becoming infected. They may grow or may stay the same size for years.

The body can fight off an HPV infection, which means that genital warts will go away on their own in some cases. You may never know you were infected.

About 400,000 Americans become infected with genital warts each year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Women’s Health. The only way to get genital warts is through sexual contact with someone who has one of the types of HPV that cause warts. Women can contract HPV during sex with another woman as well as through sex with a man.

In women, sexually transmitted warts tend to occur in or around the anus, in or around the opening to the vagina, on the vulva, or internally on the cervix. In men, they tend to grow on the tip of the penis, around the anus, or on the scrotum.

For the most part, warts are not dangerous, but they can grow to the point where they obstruct the vagina or the urethra of the penis in men. Some people say that their warts itch or have a burning sensation. If the warts enlarge, they can become irritate during sex and bleed a bit.

For women, there are two serious issues with genital and anal warts. These warts may grow and spread during pregnancy because of changes in hormone levels. If they are in the vagina and on the cervix, they may grow to the point where they block the birth canal. If such a blockage occurs, a cesarean section may be needed to deliver the baby safely.

Another serious issue is that warts in the birth canal can infect the baby with HPV during birth. Some types of warts that are spread to the baby can–in very rare cases–form in the baby’s airways and can make breathing difficult.

Women who had genital warts that went away on their own or that were treated usually don’t have any problems during their pregnancies. However, if you or your partner have ever had genital or anal warts, make sure to tell your obstetrician or midwife.

There are several treatments for genital warts. A physician can remove them using an electric current, a laser, or chemicals to burn them off. They can also be removed by freezing or by removing them surgically.

If you have genital or anal warts, do not use over-the-counter wart remover products on them. Talk to your physician or midwife and ask for their advice.

The only way to prevent being infected genital or anal warts is to completely avoid all sexual contact. Condoms can reduce a person’s risk of becoming infected, but there is still some risk.

Three vaccines are approved to prevent HPV infections, Gardasil, Gardasil 9, and Cervarix. These vaccines greatly reduce the risk of infections from many of the HPV types that cause cervical cancer and also reduce the risk of becoming infected with the types that cause genital and anal warts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that HPV vaccine be given to girls and boys around age 11 or 12 so that it is effective before they become sexually active at a later age. However, women up to age 26 can get the vaccine, too. The vaccines are not recommended for women who are pregnant. Talk to your doctor or midwife about HPV vaccines.

Valerie DeBenedette
Valerie DeBenedette is an experienced health and medical writer who lives about an hour north of New York City with a dog that is smaller than her cat. Her work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, newsletters, and on websites. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers.

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