The virus that causes genital warts is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. As many as 24 million Americans may be infected, and the frequency of infection appears to be increasing. One study suggests that nearly 40 percent of college-age women have these warts on the cervix. The growths appear on, in, and around the genitals anywhere from one to eight months after a person has been infected by the human papilloma virus (HPV).
The virus is highly contagious, spreading by sexual or other intimate bodily contact, and a person can be infected with the virus and spread it even though no warts are visible. HPV occurs among all ages and all classes, though it is most prevalent among young people and the poor.
The warts, which may have no obvious symptoms, are benign, but some strains of HPV are believed to be precursors of genital cancers, notably of the cervix and possibly the penis. Most women with cervical cancer are infected with HPV, but only a relatively small proportion of HPV-infected women eventually develop a related cancer. Of the more than 70 types of HPV that have been identified, only two or three are known to be commonly linked to cancer.
Symptoms of Genital Warts
- Local irritation and itching, followed by soft, flat, irregularly surfaced growths that appear around the anus, on the cervix, inside the vagina, on the shaft and tip of the penis, or in the urethra, vulva, scrotum, as well as in the mouth and throat. The warts may increase in size and number.
- Warts may also be barely visible, small, flat elevations of skin that otherwise cause no symptoms.
- Flesh-colored bumps or tiny, cauliflower-like bumps
- Some warts are so small they cannot be seen by the naked eye.
What Causes Genital Warts?
HPV is the same virus that causes warts on the hands, feet, and face. Genital warts, however, are passed from person to person through sexual activity, and they spread more easily than other types of warts. Scientists attribute the increase in genital wart cases in part to changes in sexual behavior (namely, sexual activity starting at an earlier age and/or with multiple partners).
What If You Do Nothing?
The warts themselves are benign, and if left untreated, they may disappear on their own. They are more likely to grow larger and more numerous, however, and treatment is necessary to prevent further growth and reinfection.
Home Remedies for Genital Warts
Drugstore remedies for most warts are useless and may be harmful. Such remedies should never be used with genital warts. It’s generally recommended that genital warts be removed surgically or chemically as soon as possible. However, the virus may remain dormant for years, so the warts can be hard to eradicate. Even after warts have been removed, an infected person may still be able to transmit the virus, and the warts often recur.
Apart from abstinence, the most reliable preventive is long-term monogamy with a monogamous partner. If you’re healthy and have a long-term monogamous relationship with a healthy partner, you’re at no risk. But if you have not had a long-standing monogamous relationship, always take the following measures.
- Check your partner. If you notice any wartlike bumps on or around the genitals of a sexual partner, ask that he or she seek medical attention.
- Always use a latex condom. It will not offer complete protection against genital warts, but it will significantly reduce the degree of contagion.
- Women should get Pap tests. Early identification of HPV is important in identifying women at high risk for cervical cancer. Once diagnosed with HPV infection, a woman must have annual Pap smears (for the early detection of cervical cancer) as recommended for the rest of her life.
- Make sure your partner is examined and treated. It’s important that both partners in a sexual relationship receive care if one of them has genital warts. If both partners are infected but only one is treated, then reinfection may occur.
- Stop smoking. Smokers may be more possible to have genital warts than nonsmokers.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
Contact your physician immediately if you suspect you have genital warts.
What Your Doctor Will Do
A close examination will be undertaken. Small warts often cannot be seen by the naked eye, so your doctor will use a special magnifying instrument called a colposcope to closely examine the cervix. Men may be checked for warts in the bladder or urethra.
No standard treatment for genital warts exists; you must be evaluated and treated individually based on the extent of the infected area. A number of treatments have been used with varying success, including surgically removing the warts, removing them by freezing, using a laser to vaporize the warts, or using chemicals to burn them off. Two prescription creams for treating genital warts, imiquimod (Aldara) and podofilox (Condylox), are also available, and your doctor may prescribe one of these.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media