Genital warts are one of the most commonly found infections transmitted sexually. It is caused by a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV). Genital warts develop on the tissues of the genital area. In many cases, genital warts are tiny and not easily visible and may not appear like the typical wart on other parts of the skin. Although the infection may not have as serious complications, it may occur along with other infections that can be dangerous and even life threatening.
Genital warts affect both women and men.
- In HPV infected women, genital warts may appear on the vulva, between the anus and the external genitals, on the walls of vagina, and the cervix.
- In men with HPV infection, genital warts may develop on the penis shaft, under the foreskin, on the scrotum, or the anus.
- An oral sexual contact with an infected person may result in the development of genital warts in the mouth or throat.
The common signs and symptoms of genital warts are:
- Small, gray or flesh-colored bumps in the genital area
- Cluster of warts giving a cauliflower-like appearance
- Discomfort or itching in the genitals
- Painful intercourse, with or without bleeding
More than 40 different strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause warts in the genital area. In most cases, the cells of the immune system attack and kill genital HPV before it can develop into warts. However, in 50% cases, HPV infection goes on to develop warts.
The risk factors that increase the chances of catching HPV infections are:
- Unprotected sex
- Multiple partners
- Presence of another sexually transmitted infection
- Young age
Some HPV strains cause flat warts in the cervix or anus. If left untreated, these flat warts can become cancerous.
Cases of asymptomatic infections or presence of painless and harmless warts does not need treatment. In case of symptoms like burning, itching, and pain in the genital areas causing emotional distress, medications or surgery are recommended.
Topical application of creams or solutions like imiquimod, podophyllin, podofilox, and caustics like trichloroacetic acid (TCA) is recommended. Repeated and prolonged application of these medications ensures maximum efficiency.
Imiquimod boosts the immune system’s ability to fight genital warts. Podophyllin and podofilox are derivates of a plant resin and are efficient in destroying genital wart tissue. TCA burns off genital warts.
The potential side effect of these creams is irritation to the surrounding skin. Podophyllin and TCA should be applied by a medical practitioner while podofilox can be used at home.
Surgical removal of warts is recommended in the cases of treatment-resistant or large warts. Surgery is also preferred for treating genital warts during pregnancy to prevent transmission of the infections to the infant.
Cryotherapy involves freezing the warts with liquid nitrogen. In electrocautery, an electrical current is used to burn off warts. Laser treatments for wart removal are recommended to very few cases due to high costs involved.
Surgical excision of the warts is done under the influence of local anesthesia.
A vaccine protects against HPV strains 6 and 11 responsible for 90% of genital warts. It also protects against HPV strains 16 and 18, which cause most cervical cancers.