Genital Warts

What are genital warts?

Genital warts are a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Genital warts are growths that appear in or on the penis, vagina, or anus.

What increases my risk of genital warts?

Genital warts are spread during genital, anal, or oral sex. A woman can also pass them to a baby when she gives birth. Sexually active men and women between the ages of 15 and 33 are more likely than others to get genital warts. The following increase your risk of having genital warts:

  • Sexual activity: Not wearing a condom and having multiple sex partners increases your risk.

  • Problems with your immune system: Other STIs, HIV infection, cancer treatments, or having an organ transplant can weaken your immune system and increase your risk.

  • Smoking: Cigarette smoking causes changes to the cells in your body and can make it easier for you to get an HPV infection.

What are the signs and symptoms of genital warts?

Genital warts do not usually have many symptoms. As the warts grow, your skin may itch or burn. If they grow together, it may be painful. Genital warts are flat or dome-shaped and can be pink, red, or brown. Over time the warts may look like cauliflower. They may feel moist and rough when you touch them.

How are genital warts diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine you and ask about your sexual activity and other health conditions you may have. He will use a light to look at your penis, vagina, or anus. You may need any of the following tests:

  • Acetic acid test: Your healthcare provider will put this solution on the affected area. The solution makes the warts turn white.

  • Biopsy: This is when a small piece of one or more of the warts is removed and sent for testing. The tests will also show if you are at an increased risk of certain types of cancer, such as cervical cancer.

  • Pap smear: This is a screening test to check for HPV and cervical cancer. Your healthcare provider will collect a sample of cells from your cervix and send it for testing. Ask healthcare providers for more information about Pap smears.

  • Colposcopy: In this procedure, healthcare providers look more closely at your cervix and vagina using a small scope with a light on it. Ask for more information about this procedure.

How are genital warts treated?

Small genital warts may heal without treatment. In some cases, the warts can get bigger, or you may get more of them. Treatment can help prevent you from spreading warts to others and may help prevent cervical cancer in women. Treatment can also take away your symptoms and help you feel better. Treatment may include the following:

  • Medicines:

    • Immunomodulators: This helps strengthen your immune system and treat genital warts.

    • Antiproliferatives: This may help stop genital warts from growing in size or increasing in number.

    • Antivirals: This helps control and stop virus growth, such as HPV.

  • Procedures:

    • Cryotherapy: This uses liquid nitrogen (gas) to freeze and destroy genital warts. This treatment may be used on women who are pregnant.

    • Electrocautery: This uses a device with a small probe that destroys genital warts with heat.

    • Surgery: A scalpel, scissors, or other surgical tools may be used to remove the warts. After the warts are removed they may be sent to a lab for tests.

    • Laser: This is used to remove larger or thicker genital warts. The laser uses heat to destroy the tissues around or near your warts. This treatment may help the areas heal without leaving scars.

What are the risks of genital warts?

Even with treatment, genital warts can come back. Genital warts can spread to other parts of your body. Tell your healthcare provider if you are pregnant, as certain medicine used to treat genital warts should not be used by pregnant women. Without treatment, some kinds of genital warts may turn into cancer.

How can I care for myself?

  • Do not touch or scratch the warts: This can cause the infection to spread to other parts of your body.

  • Avoid sex during treatment: Do not have sex while you are being treated for genital warts. Medicine used on your skin weakens condoms and diaphragms. You also risk spreading genital warts to your partner.

  • Have regular Pap smears: If you are a woman, this can help diagnose HPV and prevent the spread of the virus.

How can genital warts be prevented?

  • Tell your sexual partners that you are being treated for genital warts: They may also be infected and need treatment.

  • Get vaccinated: The HPV vaccine is given at 9 to 26 years of age to help prevent cervical cancer and genital warts. Ask your healthcare provider for more information about this vaccine.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

Contact your healthcare provider if:

  • The skin that is being treated for genital warts is very painful or swollen.

  • You see or feel new warts on any part of your body.

  • You have new signs and symptoms after you start medicine to treat genital warts.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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