Genital warts are also known as venereal warts or condylomata acuminate. Genital warts are one of the most common kinds of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) or STIs (sexually transmitted infections).
A genital wart is an infection of the skin, in the genital or anal area, as well as the mucous membranes of the rectum, cervix and vagina.
In this article, we will look at the causes, diagnosis and treatment of genital warts. We will also discuss any potential complications and how to avoid catching them.
Contents of this article:
Fast facts on genital warts
Here are some key points about genital warts. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- Genital warts are contagious
- They are caused by papillomavirus infecting the skin
- They normally appear as flesh-colored or gray swellings in the genital region
- Cryotherapy is sometimes used to remove genital warts, but there are a number of removal options
- Genital warts are not generally harmful but they can be unsightly
- Hormonal changes during pregnancy might cause genital warts to grow, bleed or increase in number
- The biggest risk factor for genital warts is unprotected sex
- Diagnosis normally consists of a simple inspection of the lesions
- Some genital warts respond well to topical medication.
What are genital warts?
According to Medilexicon's medical dictionary, a genital wart is:
"A contagious projecting warty growth on the external genitals or at the anus, consisting of fibrous overgrowths covered by thickened epithelium showing koilocytosis, due to sexual contact with infection by human papillomavirus; it is usually benign, although malignant change has been reported, associated with particular types of the virus."
This article does not cover non-genital warts. We have a separate article for the causes and treatments of warts.
Causes of genital warts
Genital warts on the base of a man's penis.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Genital warts, like other non-STD warts, are caused by various types of the human papilloma virus (HPV) that infect the top layers of the skin.
There are over 100 different types of HPV that may cause warts, but only a small number of strains can cause genital warts.
Those that do cause genital warts, unlike other wart-causing HPVs, are highly contagious and are passed on through sexual contact with a person who is infected. HPV types 6 and 11 cause the majority of genital warts.
It is estimated that over 60% of people who have sexual relations with a person who has genital warts will become infected and develop them too. Generally, the genital warts will appear about three months after infection - however, in some cases there may be no symptoms for many years.
A study found that 10% of young women in England have been infected with one or more strains of the human papillomavirus by the age of 16. Another study found that 26% of US girls aged 14-19 have at least one sexually transmitted disease.
Risk factors for genital warts
- Having unprotected sex
- Having unprotected sex with many different people
- Having sex with a person whose sexual history is unknown
- Starting sexual relations at a young age (however, one study seems to contradict this)
- Having stress and other viral infections (such as HIV or herpes) at the same time.
Complications of genital warts
- Cancer - HPV infection has been closely association with cervical cancer, as well as cancer of the vulva, anus and penis. The majority of cervical cancers globally are caused by HPV infection. Even though not all HPV infections lead to cervical cancer, it is crucial for a woman's long-term health that she has regular Pap tests. This study revealed that some HPV infections are also closely linked to head and neck cancers. Another report says that HPV is also linked to oral cancer.
- Pregnancy problems - pregnant women who have genital warts may have problems urinating. If there are warts on the vaginal wall her vaginal tissues may stretch less during childbirth. There is a very small risk that a mother with genital warts when she gives birth may cause the baby to have warts in his/her throat (laryngeal papillomatosis) - when this does happen surgery may be needed to prevent the airway from becoming obstructed.
Hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy may cause genital warts to grow, bleed, or increase in number.
Diagnosing genital warts
Normally a visual inspection is enough to diagnose genital warts.
- Women - genital warts may exist on the vulva, cervix, upper thighs, inside the vagina, on the anus, and inside the anus. (vulva = lips around the opening of the vagina. Cervix = entrance to the uterus or womb)
- Men - genital warts may exist on the penis, scrotum, urethra, upper thighs, on the anus, and inside the anus. (urethra = tube than urine passes through. scrotum = sac that holds the testicles)
Oral sex raises the risk of genital warts developing in the mouth or throat.
A patient needs to be examined by a health care professional - this could be a nurse - to confirm a diagnosis of genital warts. In the UK people can either go to their GP (general practitioner, primary care physician), a GUM (genitourinary medicine) clinic, or a sexual health clinic.
Even if a person's partner has no symptoms, it is still possible to have genital warts. People should go for a checkup if:
- The patient or partner has genital warts symptoms
- The patient recently had unprotected sex with a new partner
- The patient or partner have had unprotected sex with somebody else
- The patient's partner tells him/her that he/she has an STD
- The patient has an STD
- The patient is pregnant
- The patient is trying to get pregnant.
A health care professional can usually diagnose genital warts if any are visible. The examination may involve looking inside the vagina or anus. On rare occasions a biopsy of the wart may be taken.
Sometimes, even if no warts are detected, the doctor or nurse may ask the patient to come back at a later date. Visible warts may not appear straight after infection.
On the next page, we look at what genital warts look like and the possible treatments for genital warts. We also discuss why Pap tests are important.