What are genital warts?
Genital warts (condylomata acuminata) are the most common sexually transmitted disease (STD) and a symptom of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection — a very common and highly contagious skin infection. Although HPV comes in over 100 different types, 90 percent of all cases of genital warts are caused by strains 6 and 11. Accordingly, only 10 percent of those who contract the virus will develop visible warts.
Even if they are unaware of its presence, most sexually active people will contract the virus at some point during their lifetime. It is passed on through skin-to-skin contact, most commonly through oral, vaginal or anal intercourse. Although the warts rarely cause any long-term harm, they are generally considered unsightly and may cause psychological distress. There is no cure for genital warts or HPV, meaning treatment options are limited to managing the physical impact.
Symptoms of genital warts
Most people who contract the virus will not develop any visible symptoms. If genital warts do appear, it can sometimes be a significant amount of time – weeks or even months – after first contracting the infection.
The warts themselves generally form in clusters, though can also appear singularly. They normally form on the outside of the body in the genital or anal area, typically on the vagina, labia majora, penile shaft or scrotum. They can also less commonly appear internally; inside the anus, the vagina, the opening of the urethra or on the cervix.
The warts usually take the form of small bumps of roughly two to three centimeters in diameter and are sometimes described as resembling miniature cauliflowers. They typically cause no pain and minimal discomfort, are red or skin-colored in appearance, and can be either soft or hard to touch. If scratched or excessively disturbed, genital warts may bleed.
The wart virus (human papilloma virus (HPV) ) is contagious and is passed by touch. There are over 100 known HPV virus types. Warts are mostly caused by the viruses HPV-6 or HPV-11. The virus causes skin cells to flourish and causes the characteristic fleshy lump. Young people are most likely to get this infection for the first time, though it can affect anyone exposed to the virus. It affects men more commonly than women, but it may cause more severe symptoms in women. People who don't practice safe sex are more likely to catch the wart virus.
Diagnosing genital warts
Most commonly, visible genital warts will be diagnosed through a routine doctor’s examination and the review of the patient’s medical history. If, however, there is a suspicion of the presence of HPV without any visible symptoms, other diagnostic routes may be explored. For women, this will most often involve a gynecological exam and Pap test, followed by a tissue biopsy if abnormal cells are detected. Biopsies for men are much more rare and are generally not recommended by doctors.
Gynecological exam / Pap test
For women without visible genital warts, diagnosing the presence of HPV will often involve undergoing a gynecological exam. This exam will typically include a Pap test (sometimes called a Pap smear). A procedure usually used to test for cervical cancer, the Pap test screens the cervix for abnormal cells, which are a possible sign of HPV infection. If abnormal cells are found, further tests will be carried out to screen for HPV infection, as well as the presence of cervical cancer.
Genital warts treatment
There is no cure for genital warts – no way to remove the virus from the patient's system – meaning that treatment is focussed on removing the warts or preventing them from spreading. The direction that treatment will take depends on the amount of warts present, their location and their physical appearance.
Using condoms during sexual intercourse may help to prevent some people from catching the genital wart virus. Telling sexual partners of one’s diagnosis is also important to prevent passing the virus further. Vaccination against HPV may also help to avoid catching some of the viruses which cause genital warts; but this vaccine is not effective against every type of wart virus.
Other names for genital warts
- Anogenital warts
- Condyloma acuminatum
- Condylomata acuminata