What are genital warts?

Genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) and one of the most common of all sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). While there is a vaccine to help prevent infection, there is no cure for HPV. The fastest way to remove them is through surgery, freeze them off with liquid nitrogen, or electric current or laser treatments to burn off the warts.
Genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) and one of the most common of all sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). While there is a vaccine to help prevent infection, there is no cure for HPV. The fastest way to remove them is through surgery, freeze them off with liquid nitrogen, or electric current or laser treatments to burn off the warts.

Genital warts are one of the most common of all sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Approximately 79 million Americans are infected with the virus that causes genital warts. Nearly one in 100 sexually active adults in the United States has genital warts.

Genital warts are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). This virus has many strains that can cause contagious warts and some that can cause cancer. To get rid of your warts, your doctor needs to remove them surgically. It is essential to know the signs of genital warts and HPV so that you can get treatment as soon as possible. This also helps prevent your spreading the virus to others.

Symptoms of genital warts

Genital warts are growths on your genitalia that result from being infected by HPV. Symptoms for genital warts are generally the same for all people, except for the differences in anatomy. Warts can appear:

In people with vulvas:

  • On the vulva
  • On the vaginal walls
  • On the perineum
  • On the anus or anal canal
  • On the cervix
  • On the mouth

In people with penises:

  • On the tip of the penis
  • On the shaft of the penis
  • On the scrotum
  • On the anus
  • On the mouth

These non-anatomically specific symptoms for genital warts are similar for all people:

  • Cauliflower-shaped growths
  • Itching or discomfort in the genitals
  • Bleeding when you have intercourse
  • Small pink, flesh-colored, or swollen brown areas

Causes of genital warts

External genital warts are caused by HPV. There are over 120 subtypes of HPV, but only about 40 of them can infect the area of the body known as the anogenital tract. These 40 types of HPV cause warts that generally take similar forms. They can be:

  • Flat
  • Dome-shaped
  • Cauliflower-shaped
  • Pedunculated (have a stalk or stem)

Who can get genital warts?

Anyone who has sexual contact with someone that has HPV can get genital warts. The human papillomavirus transmits when your skin contacts the infected area on someone that has it. For HPV to create warts on your genitals, this contact has to be on or around the genital area. 

The virus is contagious and may be present on the skin of someone that has it. HPV can transfer through the touch of a hand or sexual contact.

Once the virus enters your skin, it combines with your skin cells and begins to multiply. This causes growths (warts) to form on the skin of the affected area. The virus can then exit the wart and spread to other areas of your skin or other people.

Warts don’t always form when HPV enters your skin. Your infected skin cells can release the virus without showing any symptoms. You will continue to pass HPV on to other people even without visible symptoms.

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Diagnosis for genital warts

Genital warts are generally not harmful. Since they are contagious, it’s essential to see the doctor if you notice any symptoms. You can pass genital warts on to people without knowing it if they are not treated.

The human papillomavirus can cause cancer in some people. Both men and women can develop cancer from certain strains of HPV, but women are more likely to do so. It is essential to get treatment for HPV as soon as possible. See your doctor if you notice any signs.

When you see your doctor, they will ask you questions about your general health and ask about your sexual activity within the last few years. They’ll also ask about any previous sexually transmitted diseases you may have had.

The doctor will conduct a physical examination of your genital area, looking for signs of warts. If necessary, they’ll take samples for a biopsy and perform other tests to look for internal warts. 

Some other tests the doctor might do are:

The Papanicolaou (Pap) smear is used to check a woman’s cervix for any infected cells. A colposcope is an instrument used to look inside the vagina and on the cervix for warts. To look inside the anus, the doctor might use an anoscope to look for any warts that might have spread inside.

The doctor will also have you contact any partners you have had and ask them to get tested for HPV and genital warts.

Treatments for genital warts

Unfortunately, there is no cure for HPV. However, there is a vaccine for the virus that will help prevent infection . 

If you’ve developed genital warts, your doctor has a few options for treatment. The fastest way to remove them is through surgery or to freeze them off with liquid nitrogen. Some doctors might use an electric current or laser treatment to burn off the warts.

Possible complications and side effects of genital warts treatments

Treating genital warts with surgery comes with the usual risks of infection. Wart removal is a relatively simple procedure. There are usually no side effects other than some post-surgical discomfort in the area. There may also be some pain if the warts were in a sensitive area.

If you contract HPV, you run the risk of transmitting it to someone else. Certain strains can cause cancer in both men and women. Types of cancer that can result are:

  • Cervical
  • Vulvar
  • Penile
  • Anal
  • Head and Neck

Can you test yourself for STDs?

If you need to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) but would rather not go to the doctor or community health clinic, you can test yourself at home. Nowadays, there are a wide variety of at-home testing kits that can test for the following:

Self-testing home kits allow you to check for STIs on a regular basis without having to disclose your personal information to health clinics.

When should you test yourself for STDs?

STDs, also called sexually transmitted infections (STIs), are very common. According to the statistics of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 20 million are diagnosed with STDs each year, and most of them are between the ages of 15-24.

Doctors suggest that you should get tested if you are sexually active and have had unprotected sex. Also, if one partner suspects that they may have an STI, it's a good idea for both partners to get tested.

People who engage in high-risk sexual behaviors, such as having sex with multiple anonymous partners, having sex with sex workers, and using intravenous drugs are at a high risk of contracting an STI. 

These infections, if left untreated, can impact pregnancy, cause long-term complications, and increase the risk of additional STIs, malignancies and infertility in both men and women.

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How do home testing kits work?

Because most self-testing kits have a 4-month expiration date, collected samples must be sent to the lab as soon as possible:

  • Finger prick sample collection: You prick the tip of your finger with a small needle and collect your blood in a container. This sample can be tested for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis, and syphilis.
  • Urine sample collection: Once you pee into the urine sample pot, you can send it to a lab for it to be tested for chlamydia and gonorrhea.
  • Swab collection: Some kits may contain a cotton swab, which is used to collect mucus or tissue from the infected or private areas and test them for STDs.

You should wait at least 2 weeks between having sex and collecting test samples if you are getting tested for chlamydia and gonorrhea, and 12 weeks for HIV and syphilis. If you have any symptoms or suspect you have an STI, you should avoid having intercourse until you obtain the test results.

If the samples are not collected properly or submitted to a lab in enough time, there is a good probability that a false-negative result may be generated, which increases your risk of your STI going untreated.

What to do if the results are positive

If you test positive for any STIs, you should see a doctor right away. 

After discussing your symptoms with your doctor and considering your medical history, your doctor can assist you in selecting the most appropriate tests to further investigate the extent of the disease and identify any underlying causes. Your doctor may also perform a physical examination to look for lesions such as genital warts, herpes or bumps on the genital area.

Your doctor may advise you to not indulge in any sexual activity, even protected sex, until the infection subsides and is treated appropriately.

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Medically Reviewed on 4/18/2022
References
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Human Papillomavirus (HPV)."

Harvard Health Publishing: "Human Papillomavirus (HPV)."

Harvard Health Publishing: "Genital Warts."

Moffitt Cancer Center: "Infographic: HPV Vaccine is Key to Preventing Certain Cancers."

Office on Women's Health: "Genital Warts."

Office on Women's Health: "Human papillomavirus."

Sense: "Testing at Home."

One Medical: "STD Screening: The Basics."