One of the most common sexually transmitted infections you can get, you can carry the genital warts virus without knowing you've got it. Luckily, it's harmless.
If caught early, genital warts are easily treatable. Treating them also reduces the risk of you passing on the virus to anyone else, so make sure you get checked out if you think you're suffering from this common, harmless virus. Doctors are used to seeing these tiny little lumps, so there's no need to feel embarrassed.
What are they?
Sometimes referred to as condyloma acuminate, venereal warts or even (in the olden days) brothel sprouts, genital warts are the second most common sexually transmitted infection you can get. Recent figures suggest diagnoses in the UK have increased by 30% since 1999; with the highest rate among women aged 16-19, and men age 20-24.
The warts are caused by a group of viruses called Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and can be found around the genitals of men and women; occasionally they can appear on the upper thighs.
Genital warts have been around for millions of years and right up until the '70s were considered to be the result of poor hygiene. However, a clinical study carried out at the Department of Venerology, St Thomas' Hospital, confirmed they are picked up and spread through skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, anal or oral sex with an infected partner. They can also be passed on from a mother to her baby during childbirth, although this is rare.
What are the symptoms?
The virus can live in the body for a very long time (up to 18 months) without showing any symptoms at all. When the warts appear they generally don't itch or hurt and can also be so small that they're only visible under a microscope. So the truth is you probably won't know you've got them until you can physically feel the warts. However, once established on the genitals the warts can both enlarge and spread - including to the anus - so it's worth getting early treatment.
What do they look like?
Some look like common warts you might get on your hand or foot; some are as small as a pinhead. They can be flat, hard or cauliflower-like lumps and be white, grey or pink in colour. However, in medical terms there are five types:
- Hyperplastic or classical greyish or flesh coloured warts located mostly in the moist areas
- Sessile smaller, more discrete flesh coloured, hypermigmented greyish white lesions found in dry and moist areas
- Verruca vulgaris large dark grey or brown dry lesion that resembles a common skin wart found on the perineum, pubis and scrotum
- Pigmented papules discrete pigmented solid lumps with a smooth surface found anywhere, usually in combination with other warts
- Giant condylomata acuminata extremely rare large gradually progressive warts most commonly located on the penis, but can appear anywhere around the genitals
How are they treated?
You will only need treatment if the warts are visible, so if you see something suspicious down there, sort it out straight away. Go to your nearest genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic or make an appointment to see your doctor (GP). If you can't see anything but have a strong suspicion you have warts the doctor can apply a weak vinegar-like solution to the genitals, which turns the warts white making them more visible.
Treatment involves either putting a cream (imiquimod) or liquid (Podophyllin) onto the warts, freezing them with liquid nitrogen, surgery or laser treatment. They can only be removed successfully by a medical professional, so don't attempt any form of over-the-counter wart removal treatment at home. Not only will it bring tears to your eyes, it won't actually get rid of them.
For some people the warts can clear up quite quickly, for others it can take a long time and treatment often has to be repeated or even changed. Also - and here's the bad news - although treatments can remove the warts, they do not remove the HPV, so warts can recur (about 50-73% of the time). Just like warts on your fingers, they can also spontaneously go away when your body finally kicks out the virus.
What if I ignore them?
Ignoring them could result in them getting bigger and becoming more difficult to treat. It may also affect your sexual confidence if you know you have genital warts, even if they're so small your partner can't see them. So best to get them sorted. Some strains of HPV (but not the one that causes genital warts) have also been linked to cervical cells that can lead to cancer, so women who've been infected may need more regular smear tests.
Can I avoid getting genital warts?
Wearing a condom offers some protection, but as the virus can spread from the areas of the genitals not covered by the condom it's not a sure-fire guarantee. For this reason you should let anyone you're sleeping with know if you're carrying the virus. That way they can make their own decision about whether they want to risk getting genital warts or not.
You can be vaccinated against genital warts, but only if you're not infected with HPV. The vaccinations (Cervarix® and Gardasil®) are therefore mostly given to people before they become sexually active.
How soon can I have sex again?
You'll probably be advised to avoid sex while you're being treated to protect the treated area from friction and help the healing process. To speed things up, keep the area clean and dry and avoid using perfumed soaps, shower gels and deodorising products which can irritate the warts. In most cases, genital warts clear up after three months.
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