HPV Genital Warts

The Human Papillomavirus Virus (HPV) is a collection of viruses that can cause warts on genitals; these are called genital warts. Genital warts are a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that cause skin growths that cause pain, discomfort, and itching. Genital warts are especially dangerous for women because some types of HPV can also cause cancer of the cervix and vulva.

This type of a STI is very common as approximately 360,000 people develop genital warts each year. Protection and treatment are essential in preventing this infection. We’ll cover a few options for treatment later in this article, but first let’s dive a bit deeper into what genital warts are and why they appeared on your body in the first place so that you can better protect yourself in the future.

 

HPV/Genital Warts Overview & Facts

HPV is so common that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that most sexually active people get it at some point — the key difference is whether the virus leads to complications like genital warts. Attention needs to be paid to the fact that the types of human papillomavirus that cause genital warts are not identical to the ones that cause cervical cancer. There are over 100 varieties of HPV, more than 40 of them being connected with the genitals.  The vast majority of HPVs are not dangerous and they are cleared away by the body. The strains that cause genital warts – HPV 6 and 11 – are generally harmless and only occasionally they become malignant.

Genital warts (condylomata acuminata) are symptoms of HPV infections, affecting both men and women alike. However, women are the ones who are more prone to developing complications. Condylomata acuminata are basically soft bumps that appear on the genitals. They can present themselves on the skin around the genitals and anus. The outward aspect of genital warts is homogeneous. To be more precise, they gather in groups of 3 0r 4. The warts may have a pinkish or grayish color, while the texture is very similar to that of a cauliflower. As a rule, genital warts do not grow for more than 6 months and they are virtually painless.

A person gets genitals warts after having skin-to-skin contact with someone who is infected with the HPV virus, which is why they are considered a STI. Although they are not particularly dangerous, they are embarrassing and will make it for an awkward conversation next time you’ll want to engage in sexual activity with someone. It is best that you restrain from having any more sexual partners until you get rid of the STI from your body so that you do not contaminate anyone else with it.

Although HPV infection is transmitted during sex, non-sexual transmission of the virus is also possible and we’ll cover some of these ways of transmission further into the article.

 

Signs and Symptoms of HPV/Genital Warts

As mentioned previously, genital warts are symptoms of HPV and are generally transmitted through sexual activity. Genital warts do not appear immediately after sexual contact, it may take anywhere between 4 weeks to 8 months for the warts to appear. It is also possible to carry the virus that causes genital warts without having any symptoms whatsoever that are visible to the naked eye. They could also be very small and the color of the skin or slightly darker like in the picture below. To be sure about whether or not you have genital warts, or the HPV strain that carries the virus it is best to get a HPV blood test.

HPV Genital Warts

 

The top of the warts may resemble a cauliflower and may feel smooth or slightly bumpy to the touch. An infected person can have either a cluster of warts, or just one wart. Below is another picture of genital warts that are more visible and easier to see with the naked eye. Your warts could look slightly different from this so it is always best to consult a doctor or get a blood test done to be sure.

genital warts cluster

Genital warts on males may appear on the following areas:

  • groin
  • penis
  • thighs
  • scrotum
  • inside or around the anus

Genital warts in females may appear on the following area:

  • cervix
  • inside or outside of the vagina or anus

Genital warts may also appear on the mouth, tongue or throat of the person who has had oral sex with an infected person.

Even if you cannot see genital warts, they may still cause symptoms, such as:

  • vaginal discharge
  • itching
  • bleeding
  • burning

Those who happen to notice any of these signs and symptoms should go to a doctor.

 

Diagnosis of HPV/Genital Warts

Diagnosing genital warts (HPV infection) is not complicated for a medical practitioner. It is sufficient for the doctor to take a look at the genital area. In addition to examining the papules, the trained professional will remove the upper part of the wart and look for clotted blood vessels. The medical practitioner can also do a biopsy and test for other types of skin illnesses. The bumps look just like molluscum contagiosum, so it is necessary to rule out this possibility. A detailed assessment is not always necessary. It all depends on the location of the genital wart. Diagnosing genital warts is not difficult, but people refuse to seek medical help. The reason for this is that they are ashamed to have contracted an STD.

It is of paramount importance to diagnose genital warts early. The longer the HPV infection goes undiagnosed, the more damage it does. Complications of HPV include pregnancy complications (difficulty urinating) and cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is most commonly associated with genital HPV infection. According to scientific research, the vast majority of people having a subclinical papillomavirus infection were treated for this type of cancer. There is no guarantee, but the evidence suggests that genital warts could succeed cervical cancer. Pap smear (Pap test) is the most important test that a specialist can perform.

 

Risk Factors for Genital Warts

According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), nearly half of the people who have sex have had some type of HPV infection. While contacting HPV is very common for everyone that’s sexually active, developing genital warts is more common for people who fall under the following categories:

  • are under the age of 30
  • have immune system weaknesses
  • smoke
  • if their mother had the virus during childbirth

 

Treatment and Care of HPV/Genital Warts

While there is no cure for the HPV virus there are many treatments available to eliminate the visible genital warts. Note that even removing the genital warts once does not guarantee a lifetime free of genital warts as they may come back over the course of your life. Treating the genital warts properly though will at least prevent you transmitting the virus to others and will relieve potential painful symptoms and minimize their appearance.

Doctors will typically prescribe different treatments that may include the following ingredients known to be able to combat and get rid of genital warts:

  • imiquimod (Aldara)
  • podophyllin and podofilox (Condylox)
  • trichloroacetic acid (TCA)

To combat the visible warts doctors may also recommend different types of surgeries if they are unsuccessful at removing them with regular creams and solutions:

  • cryosurgery (freezing warts)
  • electrocautery (burning warts with electric currents)
  • laser treatments
  • excision, or cutting off warts

If you choose to remove the genital warts using home remedies or Over the Counter products there are many options that you can try. Read more about them in our Home Remedies for Genital Warts blog post.

 

How HPV/Genital Warts Can Be Avoided

Men and women can protect themselves against HPV and the serious health consequences that it leads to. So, genital warts can be avoided. There is a vaccine available and it is for intramuscular injection. The serum contains capsid L1 proteins that bear a striking resemblance to human papillomavirus. The particles are not virulent because they do not contain any viral genetic material. Gardasil protects against HPV strains 6, 11, 16, and 18. For the variety that leads to cervical cancer there is a special antiserum.

The American Cancer Society strongly recommends HPV vaccination at a young age because it produces the most considerable response on the immune system, clearing the pathogen before it can cause harm. Men and women up to 26 years can receive HPV vaccination. This is called catch-up vaccination. Those who lead an active sex life should consider the possibility of getting immunization. A vaccine can help prevent genital warts, cancer, and transmitting the STD to another person.

 

Preventing the Spread of HPV/Genital Warts

HPV vaccination is not the only way to prevent the spread of genital warts. It is recommended for people to avoid engaging in any kind of sexual activity until the growths heal completely. Those who insist on having intimate relations should use latex condoms during sexual intercourse. Latex condoms have been testes for efficiency and the results are positive. This can reduce the risk of getting genital HPV. Yet, the areas that are not covered by the condom are not protected.

Viral particles can penetrate the skin and mucosal surfaces during copulation, which is the reason why they are dangerous. Another thing people should do is change their sexual habits. More specifically, they should not have more than one sexual partner. Partners should be honest with each other and disclose things like STDs. Having had a sexually transmitted disease can complicate things. What is more, it is possible to get infected with another type of HPV.

 

Incidence and Prevalence of HPV/Genital Warts

According to specialized literature, the incidence and prevalence of HPV and condylomata acuminata is extremely high. It has been estimated that the number is somewhere between 340, 000 and 360, 000. In other words, the genital HPV infection is one of the most common transmitted ones in the world. Studies take into account the adult population (males and females), from the ages of 20 to 40. Young people are mostly affected by human papillomavirus. In the past, it was believed that people from certain background get infected.

At present, it is known that people of different backgrounds, religion, and age can get the viral infection. In the United Kingdom, it is imperative to inform about existing cases of genital warts. In other European countries, data relating to the spread of the diseases is obtained from epidemiological studies and sales of medicines. Medscape informs us that in the United States the annual incidence is 1%, while in Europe and the world, HPV infections are just as frequent. The rate of occurrence is higher in people aged 20-24 years.

 

Myths and Misconceptions

Myth #1: Only people who have casual sex get genital warts

The common belief is that only people who engage in sexual activities outside romantic relationships are prone to developing an HPV infection. The fact is that everyone who has sexual intercourse is at risk. There is no denying that the number of sexual partners is a risk factor, but every person can carry the HPV virus without even knowing it. Genital warts are passed on through skin-to-skin contact. Therefore, even people who are married with children are at risk of becoming infected.

Myth #2: Men can get screened for HPV

No, there is no test available for men. The screening tests that are available today are only for women. Unfortunately, they cannot be used to diagnose genital warts or cancer in males.  The only thing that the doctor can do is perform a physical examination. Some medical practitioners resort to using a vinegar solution so as to spot the lesions that are not visible to the naked eye.

Myth #3: If you have genital warts, you will get them again

Many people live in fear, thinking that they will develop genital warts once again. The thing is that genital warts do not recur after treatment. Well, some strains do, but not all of them. What happens is that the body’s immune system defeats the infection. If the HPV infection is not fully treated, then recurrences are indeed possible. When the lesions do come back, they are more persistent.

Myth #4: Genital warts cause cancer

This is not exactly a myth. As mentioned earlier, the strains that cause genital warts and cancer are not the same ones. However, a small percentage of papules can transform into cancerous lesions, if left untreated.

 

Who Is At Risk of Developing HPV/Genital Warts

Despite the fact that human papillomavirus infections are quite common, there are certain HPV/genital warts risk factors like:

  • Impaired immunity system: if the immune system is impaired, then the risk of developing or contracting condylomata acuminata is higher. The immune system can be undermined by medications and human immunodeficiency virus infection and acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
  • Damaged skin: Skin damage makes it easier for the viral particles to cause damage.
  • Tobacco smoking and alcohol consumption

 

AAOM Editor

Academic Association of Medicine is the go to resource for all health related issues. We are an independent body that seeks to offer general information on various health topics and unbiased reviews on health products.

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