What are Genital Warts?
Genital warts are caused by HPV virus, most commonly associated with two HPV types: HPV-6 and HPV-11. The warts may appear within several weeks after sexual contact with a person, who is infected with HPV. The warts may take months or years to appear, or they may never appear. It is estimated that each minute in the United States, there is a new case of genital warts.
Genital warts don’t always look the same, they are usually flesh-colored growths that can be raised or flat, small or large, and alone or in clusters. In females, warts can grow inside a woman’s vagina, or on the cervix, making them hard to see. In males, they can appear on the surface of the penis or groin.
In women genital warts can develop around the vulva or inside the vagina and on the cervix. If a woman has warts on her cervix, this may cause slight bleeding or, very rarely, an unusual colored vaginal discharge. Warts may occur singly or in groups. The warts may itch, but they are usually painless. Sometimes genital warts can be difficult to spot. In severe cases, it is possible for genital warts to spread from the genitals to the area around the anus, even if anal intercourse has not occurred.
How do I know if I have Genital Warts?
Genital warts are usually diagnosed by visual examination to see if any lesions or warts are present. If there is a question as to the cause of a sore or abnormal cell changes on the cervix, a tissue sample or culture can be taken to determine what type of virus or other microorganism is responsible. For genital warts, health care providers often use a colposcope to magnify the area. Vinegar may also be applied to the genitals to make the warts more visible. Pap smear or biopsy results often indicate the presence of the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), the virus responsible for genital warts, in women.
How are Genital Warts treated?
Treatment for genital warts can be a painful process and can involve cutting, freezing, or burning the warts. Even after treatment, genital warts can come back. In fact, 25% of cases come back within 3 months.
There is no treatment that can completely eliminate genital warts once a person has been infected. Often outbreaks of genital warts will become less frequent over time, until the body naturally clears the virus and the warts disappear on their own. However, in some people the infection may linger.
Our doctors can give patients various treatments to clear genital warts, but they may reappear even after treatment. Genital warts are caused by a virus, not a bacterium, so antibiotics will not get rid of them. Common treatments include:
- Podophyllin resin – a brown liquid that removes genital warts by stopping cell growth. Podophyllin resin is painted on to the wart(s) by a doctor and must be washed off 4 hours later (or sooner, if the area is irritated). It has to be applied by a medical professional to avoid damaging the healthy tissue around the wart and may have to be applied several times to work effectively.
- Podopfilox lotion/gel – can be applied to the wart(s) by the patient at home. The usual schedule is twice a day for 3 days, followed by 4 days without any lotion. This cycle is repeated for 4 weeks. It has few side effects and is well-suited for treatment at home (prescription is given).
- Cryocautery (also called cryotherapy) – uses liquid nitrogen to freeze more persistent warts every 1 to 3 weeks for a short period.
- Laser treatments – this approach, which uses an intense beam of light, can be expensive and is usually reserved for very extensive and tough-to-treat warts.
- Electrocautery – an electrical current is used to super-heat a needle which burns the wart cells and cauterizes the blood vessels. A local anesthetic is used to prevent any pain and the procedure is usually carried out at a doctor’s surgery. Electrocautery is used only after other treatments have failed.
- Surgical excision – the doctor will perform minor surgery to remove the wart under local anesthetic.
The doctor will give the patient advice about having sex while receiving treatment.
There are some non-prescription treatments available for genital HPV, but it is advisable to always seek medical advice. Never try to treat genital warts by yourself.