What is a genital wart?
A genital wart is a sexually transmitted disease that is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Genital warts appear around the genitals or anus.
If left untreated, genital warts can lead to cancer or cause problems during pregnancy. Cancers of the cervix, vulva, anus, penis, mouth and throat have been linked to a HPV infection.
In the United States, more than 360,000 people develop genital warts each year.
Causes of genital warts
Genital warts are transferred during sexual (oral, annual or vaginal sex) contact with people who are infected.
In healthy people, the immune system kills genital warts, and you never develop any symptoms of the infection.
Risk factors for genital warts
Factors that increase your risk of developing genital warts include:
- Sexually active at younger age
- Having sex with someone with genital warts
- Having unprotected sex with numerous partners
Symptoms of genital warts
Signs or symptoms of genital warts include:
- Bleeding with intercourse
- Genital itching
- Several warts close together
- Small swellings around the genitals
Diagnosis of genital warts
Genital warts that are visible can be diagnosed in a physical exam with your primary care doctor. Unfortunately, not all HPV infections cause visible warts; therefore, HPV infections are challenging to diagnose.
If you are at risk for HPV and are a woman, your doctor (primary care doctor or gynecologist) will take a full medical history and perform a gynecological exam.
During the exam, he or she will do a Pap test to screen for abnormal cells on the cervix. A Pap test can show a HPV infection. If you are over 30 and at high risk for HPV, your doctor may also order an HPV screening. A HPV test looks for specific cancer-causing HPV strains.
There are no recommended screening tests for men at risk for genital warts. Your doctor will take a medical history and perform a physical exam to determine if there are visible genital warts.
Men or women who have visible genital warts on the anus and practice anal sex should be screened for anal cancer. If abnormal tissue is found, you may be sent for a biopsy.
Treatment for genital warts
Although genital warts can be treated, there is not a cure for a HPV infection. If you have genital warts caused by the most common types of HPV, the warts may heal on their own without treatment.
If you have symptoms of genital warts, your doctor may recommend any of the following treatments:
Topical medications that are applied directly to the warts are first-line therapy. If the medications have a chance of causing damage to the skin around the warts, your healthcare provider will apply the medication for you. There are other medications that can be applied at home.
If medication fails or your warts are large, surgery may be necessary.
Surgical options include:
- Cryotherapy — involves freezing the wart with liquid nitrogen.
- Electrocautery — burns off the genital warts using an electrical current.
- Surgical excision — during the doctor will cut off the warts with surgical tools while you're under general anesthesia.
- Laser treatment — during the procedure, your doctor will use a laser beam of light pointed directly at the wart to try to destroy it.