The Complete Guide to Genital Warts
Genital warts are an infection caused by the human papillomavirus and get transmitted sexually. Over time, genital warts can disappear but they tend to heal faster when an infected person seeks treatment for them. Genital warts look like bumps around the person’s genitals. They’re flesh in color and feel soft when touched.
The human papillomavirus or HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection. As a matter of fact, it’s the most common STI. When a person gets infected, he can’t ever get rid of the virus. But not everyone who has HPV will also have genital warts. As one of the symptoms, warts may come and go. Although there is no cure available for genital warts, one can manage them through different kinds of treatments such as applying creams.
As aforementioned, genital warts can go away even without treatment. Usually, it would take a couple of years before warts disappear. Without treatment, there’s a higher likelihood of genital warts returning more quickly. Therefore, if a person wants to get rid of them and prevent them from coming back right away, he should seek treatment for the condition.
What Are Genital Warts
Genital warts are actually a symptom of those who are infected with HPV. Genital warts are medically known as condyloma acuminata. These are soft and moist bumps which are generally flesh or pinkish in color. Genital warts can be flat, raised, or cauliflower-shaped if they happen to grow in groups or clusters. These warts, which can also be known as anogenital warts may appear throughout a person’s anal and genital areas.
In women, genital warts can either grow outside or inside of their anus or vagina. These warts can also appear on the around these areas or in their cervix. In men, genital warts can also appear outside or inside of their anus, as well as on their scrotum or penis. In both genders, genital warts may even develop in the throat and mouth or on the lips and tongue.
Condyloma acuminata is extremely contagious. Genital warts are normally passed on through sexual contact but it may also get transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. This means that even if a person has sexual intercourse with a partner who has genital warts without penetration, there’s still a risk of transmission. Although condoms can be very helpful, they don’t cover all areas and, therefore, there’s still a risk of getting infected.
Causes and Risk Factors of Genital Warts
Simply put, genital carts are caused by the human papillomavirus or HPV which, as we’ve said, is a common sexually transmitted infection. This may come as a surprise to many people but HPV isn’t just one virus. Rather, it’s a group of over 150 viruses which are related. Around 40% of all the types of HPV can potentially cause genital warts. But the majority of genital warts cases are caused by HPV 6 and HPV 11. The other types of HPV can cause warts of the other body parts.
A person can acquire genital warts if he has sex with someone infected with HPV. The person may have contracted the infection even if he doesn’t have visible warts or other noticeable symptoms. Generally, genital warts found within the anus occur in people who have receptive anal sex. But genital warts in this area can also occur in people who haven’t had any history of anal sexual contact.
We’ve already mentioned how most cases of genital warts are caused by HPV 6 and 11, which are two types of HPV. These two types of HPV are also considered as “low risk” types because they have a low potential for causing cancer. On the other hand, there are other types of HPV which can cause premalignant changes as well as cervical cancers in women. HPV types which are considered as “high risk” are HPV 16, 18, 31, 33, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 56, 58, 59, and 68. These “high risk” HPV types are also known as oncogenic types of HPV. There’s some helpful information for you, but let’s go back to genital warts.
Common warts differ from genital warts and they’re caused by different types of HPV which can also infect the skin. When it comes to genital warts, there are vital particles which can penetrate the mucosal surfaces as well as the skin in one’s genital area through any microscopic abrasions. This penetration of particles happens while when people engage in sexual activity. When the cells in the body get invaded by HPV, there’s a quiet period that occurs known as the latency period which may last for months or years. During this time, the person won’t manifest any symptoms and there’s no evidence that there’s an infection.
Generally, around two-thirds of those who have sexual intercourse with someone who has genital warts will develop them too in three months or less. Sometimes, genital warts are associated indirectly with birth control use. This is because there is an increase in sexual contact without the use of protection, several sex partners, and even having sex at a very early age.
According to the CDC, there are around 360,000 cases of genital warts each year in the US. The prevalence of the condition among males aged 15 -39 years in the US has significantly increased between the years 2003 to 2009 but maintained stability in 2010 based on a report published in 2013. On the other hand, the prevalence of the condition among females of different ages has seen a variety of decreases and increases through the years. Overall though, the number of cases has decreased in females aged 15-24 years and this is most likely because of the HPV vaccine. A person has an increased risk of developing or spreading genital warts if:
- is feeling very stressed and has another type of viral infection
- has a weakened immune system because of certain medications or different kinds of health conditions
- drinks alcohol or uses tobacco
- is sexually active at an early age
- has unprotected sex with several partners
- has another type of sexually transmitted disease or infection
Over a number of years, sometimes even decades, an HPV infection which is persistent can end up causing cancer in a person. In fact, HPV is responsible for almost all the cases of cervical cancer. Also, this viral infection is linked to:
- more than 90% of anal cancers
- more than 70% of vaginal cancers
- more than 70% of cancers in the back of the throat including the tonsils and the tongue’s base
- more than 65% of vulvar cancers
- more than 63% of penile cancers
The CDC notes the links of HPV in these cancer cases. But these estimates don’t essentially mean that HPV is actually the cause of these cancers. For instance, some types of cancers also have links to alcohol and tobacco use. It’s also important to note that the HPV types which cause genital warts vary from the HPV types which cause cancer. Still, if one has genital warts, it’s still recommended that he gets screened for these types of cancer. This is because the person may also have the HPV type that causes cancer aside from HPV 6 or 11 which cause genital warts.
Common Symptoms of Genital Warts
Genital warts don’t cause pain but they can be quite bothersome because of their size, location, and the fact that they can cause itchiness. The size of genital warts varies and they may also join together or form clumps. Usually, people who have genital warts will complain about the itching, discharge, and the appearance of painless bumps. In rare cases, a urinary obstruction or bleeding can be the primary problem and this occurs when the wart emerges on the opening of the urethra.
Warts which appear in more than one part of the body are common. This usually happens in people who have a previous history or a concurrent sexually transmitted disease. Although there are common symptoms, there are also symptoms which occur specifically in men and in women. These include:
Symptoms in Men
- Genital warts can appear on the penis, urethra, rectal area, and scrotum.
- On a man’s penile shaft, genital warts can appear as soft and raised masses with a smooth surface.
- On a man’s anus, genital warts can appear rough with several fingerlike projections.
- Sometimes, genital warts can appear cauliflower-like, rough or pearly with a surface that’s slightly dark.
- Most of the lesions would be raised but some of them would be flat or only slightly elevated.
- In some cases, the lesions may be concealed by hair or within the inner part of the foreskin in uncircumcised men.
Symptoms in Women
- Genital warts would have a similar appearance but would typically occur in moist areas such as the vaginal opening or the labia minora.
- The lesions would be visible on the outer parts of the genitals but they can also occur in the cervix, the anorectal area, and the vaginal canal.
- Most of the time, vaginal warts occur without manifesting any symptoms.
- In rare cases, women may experience bleeding, vaginal discharge or itching after having sexual intercourse.
Diagnosing Genital Warts
Usually, doctors would base their diagnosis on their findings from the appearance of warts and the patient’s history. There are also other ways doctors can diagnose the condition. These include:
- In some patients, the lesions can only be seen through an enhancing technique known as acetowhitening. This technique would involve the doctor applying a 5% acetic acid solution to the suspected area for up to 10 minutes. Areas which are affected would then turn white.
- A colposcopy or a magnification of the affected area. With this technique, the doctor uses a scope in order to see all the lesions. In women, this technique may be used so the doctor can find lesions on their cervix or in their vaginal canal.
- Doctors may also perform a Pap smear on women to search for any evidence on an HPV infection or for any abnormal cells on their cervix.
- Another method would be to perform a biopsy if the lesion has an unusual appearance or it recurs after the treatment.
- There are also some special lab tests which can be used to confirm an HPV infection in a person.
Treatment Options for Genital Warts
The appearance of genital warts may occur within weeks, months, or even years after a person gets infected with HPV. If one experiences an outbreak, he will notice genital warts anywhere in the areas surrounding his genitals. For some people though, the outbreak can even appear on the person’s tongue, mouth, lips or throat. We’ve already stated that treatment for the condition can help hasten the disappearance of genital warts. Aside from this, the treatment can also:
- ease the itching, irritation, and pain that typically comes with genital warts
- lower the risk of the person spreading HPV to others
When it comes to genital warts, there is a number of treatment options available. For those who have the condition, it’s important to be aware of these options so that they can determine which one they’d like to try. The treatment options include:
This treatment option involves the doctor making use of liquid nitrogen in order to freeze off genital warts. The nitrogen would actually cause blisters to form around warts and when they heal, warts will fall off too. This method is effective and quick though some people may need several treatments over time in order to maintain the results. Some side effects of this treatment include a swelling of the affected area, a mild burning sensation or pain.
For this treatment option, a surgeon would use an electrical current to burn off genital warts. After the tissues dry up, they would be scraped off to leave the patient free of warts. Before the procedure, the patient would receive a general anesthetic. The healing time for this type of treatment may take a couple of weeks. This is considered a very effective treatment option. Its side effects may include scarring, changes in skin color, bleeding or infection.
Finally, one may also opt for laser surgery. A surgeon would perform this procedure by using a laser light. This would burn away the tissues of genital warts so the patient would also receive either a general or local anesthesia. The type of anesthesia would depend on the size and the number of the patient’s warts. Typically, a doctor would recommend this treatment option if the warts are extensive, prominent, not easily accessible or are difficult to treat using the other treatment options. After the laser surgery, the patient may need up to 4 weeks for recovery. The side effects of this treatment include scarring, irritation or soreness in the affected areas, bleeding or pain.
Doctors may prescribe a type of topical cream or recommend one which the patient can purchase over-the-counter. Keep in mind though that the OTC remedies for ordinary warts won’t be able to treat genital warts. Some topical creams one can use to treat genital warts are:
Sinecatechins. This is a topical cream that’s made from green tea extract. It’s usually prescribed for the treatment of anal and external genital warts. The person would have to apply the cream to the affected area three times each day for up to 4 months. This is a highly effective cream and most patients are able to tolerate it well. The side effects of this cream include redness, itching, discomfort or pain in the affected area or a burning sensation.
Imiquimod. This is another topical cream which helps eliminate external genital warts. Some people also use it for the treatment of some types of skin cancers. The person would have to apply the cream directly on warts at least 3 times each week for up to 4 months. This cream can also give a boost to the immune system of the person which, in turn, encourages it to fight the infection. However, studies show that this cream is only effective 50% of the time. Also, it seems to work better for women than for men. Some side effects of this cream include tenderness, itching, scabby or flaky skin, swelling or redness in the affected area or a burning sensation.
Although genital warts may fade away without treatment, HPV remains to be infectious. Therefore, it’s essential for infected men to wear condoms when having sexual intercourse. Aside from eliminating genital warts, treatment may also reduce the risk of outbreaks in the future. There may also be times when the person would need multiple treatment session for them to be effective.
Is There a Vaccine for Genital Warts?
In the year 2006, a vaccine for HPV came out named Gardasil and it was approved by the FDA. Until now, it’s recommended for people between the ages of 9-26 years old. The vaccine is highly effective and safe in preventing the infection of the most common types of HPV namely HPV 6, HPV 11, HPV 16, and HPV 18. It’s especially effective for women who haven’t had any previous exposure to HPV. Unfortunately, it’s not as effective for those who have already been infected with the virus and it won’t protect people against all the HPV types.
There’s another vaccine called Cervarix which is effective against HPV 16 and HPV 18. It was also approved by the FDA and it’s very effective for women between the ages of 10-25 years old. However, this vaccine was withdrawn from the market in the US back in 2016. There is no treatment out there that’s completely effective. That’s why it’s more important to prevent the transmission of the virus which causes this condition as much as possible. For instance, the transmission of the virus can be lessened if men use condoms whether they are infected or they have sex with someone who has genital warts. Better yet, an infected person should abstain from any sexual activity until he has completed the whole course of treatment.
Natural Treatments for Genital Warts
Generally, genital warts don’t manifest any other symptoms aside from when they appear on the specific body parts. When it comes to this condition, there’s very little need for home remedies. However, people infected with the condition must recognize that they have it. Then they will be able to take any necessary precautions in order to prevent trauma to the affected area which, if not prevented, can lead to bleeding. Also, when a person knows that he is infected, he can be careful so as to prevent transmission to others through sexual intercourse. If a person has genital warts, he should avoid touching them all the time because warts themselves are highly infectious. It’s important never to squeeze or pick at warts.
Genital warts are very common. In fact, records have shown that there are almost a million new cases of the condition diagnosed every year in the US alone. And who knows how many people aren’t even aware that they have genital warts? If one has genital warts, he must consult with his doctor right away. This is the best way to get treatment and to lower the risk of spreading the disease too. This may come as good news to many as there is a number of natural treatments one can use at home to treat genital warts. These include:
Tea Tree Oil
This type of oil comes with a lot of health benefits. It’s a type of essential oil which has been studied for use because of its antifungal properties. Tea tree oil is very useful against fungus and other types of organisms like head lice. Also, this oil can be beneficial in the treatment of genital warts. Just apply a drop of diluted tea tree oil right on the wart or warts.
Since some people are allergic to this oil, one should test it first by applying a small amount on his arm first then observe if there are any reactions. If the person doesn’t get any reaction for at least a whole day, then it should be safe. Tea tree oil may cause irritation, inflammation or burning. But this is also why it can reduce the size of warts. However, the person shouldn’t consume tea tree oil internally through the mouth or even through one’s vagina. Also, the infected person may have to apply the oil several times for a number of weeks. But if it becomes too irritating, it’s time to stop using the oil.
This type of tea has been found to be effective in the treatment of genital warts. Remember the topical cream named Sinecatechins? Well, its main component is green tea that’s been concentrated and included in the cream. A doctor can prescribe this cream to the patient if he sees the need for it. Also, people can purchase green tea extract, add coconut oil to it, then apply it directly to warts.
Some evidence suggests that applying garlic extract on warts can help make them disappear. One can either apply the extract on warts directly or soak a couple of gauze pads in a mixture of oil and garlic. Then the person can let the gauze pads sit on genital warts.
Apple Cider Vinegar
One may also use this healthy vinegar to treat genital warts. Think about it as something like the prescription medications which utilize acidic components to eliminate the virus. Simply soak a cotton ball, gauze or a q-tip in the apple cider vinegar then apply it directly on warts.
Aside from applying natural remedies topically, one can also consume foods or make changes in their lifestyle which can help improve the treatment of genital warts. These include:
Vegetables are generally good for people in various ways. If one has genital warts, it would be beneficial to eat a lot of veggies like kale, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. These vegetables would be beneficial to those with genital warts because they contain indole-3-carbinol or I3C which can help clear up the condition. For people who suffer from genital warts, it’s recommended that they consume at least 4 servings of these vegetables daily.
Take Vitamin b12 and Folate
There is a link between vitamin B12 and folate deficiency and the increased risk of getting infected with HPV. Therefore, taking vitamin B12 or folate supplements may help the body fight off an infection of HPV or even clear up genital warts.
Dietary and Lifestyle Support
When a person has genital warts, it puts a lot of strain in his body. Therefore, it will be very difficult for the body to defend itself against any other health problems one might contract while he has genital warts. If the person wants to heal at a faster rate, one should eliminate any immune stressors such as unhealthy or processed foods or bad habits like smoking. To stay healthy against genital warts, try eating foods such as whole grains, lean meats, beans, almonds, and other dark leafy greens like kale and spinach. These types of foods can give the immune system a boost and also reduce the risk of HPV recurrence. On the other hand, a person should avoid foods such as red meat, caffeine, refined foods, potential food allergens, and processed foods which contain trans fats.
Keep in mind that even if one gets rid of the external genital warts, that doesn’t mean that he’s no longer infected. In some rare cases, HPV can be the cause of genital warts and other diseases such as cervical cancer. There’s even a possibility that the person is infected with more than one type of HPV. That’s why it’s still important for people to consult with a doctor if he has genital warts along with these natural treatments. HPV doesn’t just cause genital warts but it can also remain dormant in a person’s body for a long period of time. This means that even if a person treats warts, they can come back.
How Does One Prevent Getting Genital Warts?
A person can get infected with genital warts when he has sexual contact with someone who already has it. The best ways to prevent getting genital warts or at least lower the risk of getting it are by using condoms and getting the HPV vaccine.
The first thing a person must do is to have a conversation with his doctor about getting the vaccine for HPV. Most brands of the vaccine would protect one against the HPV types which usually cause genital warts. Getting this vaccine is one of the best ways to avoid any issues related to HPV such as genital warts.
Genital warts can get transmitted through sexual skin-to-skin contact with a person who has it. This includes anal, oral, and vaginal sex. This means that the only sure-fire way one can avoid getting the condition and other types of STDs is to abstain from having any sexual contact with a person’s genital or mouth if that person is infected. But this is easier said than done. Most people would still choose to have sexual intercourse even if they know that there’s a risk. In such cases, then people should practice safe sex. One can use different forms of protection such as dental dams or condoms when having sex with an infected person. This can help lower the risk of getting the virus or any other type of STD.
Also, one can avoid having sex with another person if that person has any warts on the anus or on the genitals. This is important because these are the areas where the virus spreads easily. Still, the disease can get transmitted even if the person doesn’t have any visible warts so it’s still more prudent to abstain or, at least, use the right protection. Also, it would be wise to have oneself tested after having sex with an infected person.
Talking to One’s Partner About Genital Warts
Talking about one’s own disease can be very challenging. This is especially true when the person has an STD or an HPV infection. However, genital warts are actually common and they don’t generally lead to serious health issues. Therefore, people shouldn’t feel too stressed or embarrassed about being infected. When it comes to talking to one’s partner about genital warts or any kind of STD for that matter, here are some tips which may prove helpful:
- Just stay calm and explain the situation. A lot of people have this condition and most of them are in happy relationships. In fact, having genital warts isn’t a big issue for a lot of couples. When having the conversation, start it off with a calm and positive attitude. Think of the condition as a health issue which doesn’t change who one is as a person.
- Don’t just make it a one-way conversation. Keep in mind that this is a common condition. Who knows, maybe the person’s partner has it too. So it would be helpful to start the conversation off by asking if one’s partner has already been tested or if he has ever had an STD in the past.
- Know all the facts. Sadly, there’s a lot of misinformation about genital warts and STDs. If one wants to strike up a conversation with his partner, it’s best to learn all about the condition before doing so. Not only will the person be able to set the record straight, he will also be able to answer any questions his partner may have about the condition, the safety, the risks, and more.
- Talk about it at the right time. There’s nothing worse than starting a conversation with the wrong timing. Choose a time when there’s no chance of getting interrupted or distracted. Also, find a private place to talk where both people feel relaxed. If one is feeling nervous, he can talk about his condition with one of his friends first or even practice talking about genital warts to himself. This may sound silly but it’s actually effective. When the person says the words out loud, it can help him know exactly what he wants to say to his partner. Then, he will feel more confident when it’s actually time to start the conversation.
- Put safety first. If a person as fears about his/her partner hurting him/her because of the condition, having the conversation with the person might not be considered safe. In such cases, it would be better for the person to call, text or email the partner. In more extreme cases, then maybe it’s best not to tell them at all.
So when is the “right time” to tell one’s partner about genital warts? Well, one doesn’t have to tell his partner about it the first time they go on a date or hang out. But one should inform his partner before they have sex. So if the person feels like they’re going down that path and he feels like he can trust his partner, then that would be a perfect time.
It’s normal to feel worried about how one’s partner will react to the news. Unfortunately, there’s no way a person can escape the issue. If the person’s partner freaks out or has a violent reaction, the person should remain calm and talk about his condition to his partner fully. In some cases, a person may have to give his partner some space and a little time to process all the information. Again, this is normal. The person should just be calm about it and reassure his partner that genital warts are common and non-life-threatening.
Finally, it’s never a good idea to play the blame game when talking to one’s partner. If a person is in a relationship and he contracts genital warts for the first time while in the relationship, this doesn’t necessarily point to infidelity. Also, it doesn’t mean that the person got genital warts from his partner. Keep in mind that genital warts can infect a person then stay there for long periods of time without manifesting any symptoms. If, while in a relationship, one gets genital warts, then the best thing to do is talk about it and get checked.
Preventing the Spread of Genital Warts
If a person discovers that he has genital warts, that doesn’t mean the end of the world. It just means that one just needs to be more careful so that he doesn’t spread it to other people. Here are some ways to do so:
- A person can encourage his partner about the HPV vaccine. Most of the brands out there can protect one against some HPV types which cause genital warts.
- Always use protection when having anal, vaginal, and oral sex.
- Never have sexual activity when one has visible warts, even with protection. This is because the dental dams or condoms might not be able to cover all the parts which have genital warts.
- Be honest with one’s sexual partners. If a person knows that he has the condition, he should inform his partner first before engaging in sexual intercourse.
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