Genital Warts

Fleshy, painless growths on and around the genitals caused by a virus

  • Can affect sexually active people of any age
  • Unprotected sex with multiple partners is a risk factor
  • Gender and genetics are not significant factors

Genital warts are skin growths caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). There are many different types of HPV, each of which affects particular parts of the body. Certain forms of the virus affect the genital area and are spread by sexual contact. Some of these HPV forms cause genital warts. Certain other types of HPV affecting the genitals have been associated with cancer of the cervix.

In the UK, genital warts is one of the most prevalent sexually transmitted infections (STIs), with about 92,500 new cases in 2008. The disorder is reported more often by men than by women, probably because warts are more visible on the penis. An infected person can transmit the virus to sexual partners even if he or she has no symptoms of infection.

The warts appear from a few weeks to as long as 20 months after infection. They are usually soft with a rough surface and are painless. A few may have a hard surface. Genital warts become larger rapidly, and in some instances the growths cluster together in one area.

In men, warts may occur on the shaft of the penis, on the foreskin, on the glans (head of the penis), and around the anus. In women, warts may appear on the vulva (the external part of the female genitals) or may develop inside the vagina, on the cervix, and around the anus. The warts may also occur in the rectum due to infection through anal intercourse. If a pregnant woman has genital warts, she should make sure that her midwife is aware of the fact because there is a risk of passing the infection to the baby during delivery.

What might be done?

If you or your partner has genital warts, or if you have been exposed to infection, you should go to a clinic that specializes in STIs or consult your doctor. Diagnosis is based on a physical examination. Tests may also be performed to check for other STIs.

There are several ways of treating genital warts. You may be prescribed a cream containing imiquimod or podophyllotoxin, which is for use on external genital areas and applied directly to the warts. The treatment is repeated until the warts have gone. Other techniques include cryotherapy, in which the warts are destroyed by freezing; electrocautery, which burns them off; laser treatment; and surgical removal. Genital warts may recur, but in most cases the body’s immune system controls them eventually.

Can it be prevented?

You can reduce your risk of contracting genital warts by practising safe sex measures (see Preventing STIs). People are often advised to avoid sexual contact at times when the warts are visible. However, genital warts can be acquired from someone who is a carrier of the virus but has no symptoms. To prevent a short-term recurrence of warts, condoms should be used for 12 weeks after treatment has finished. However, condoms may not give total protection since they may not cover all of the affected areas.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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