What is it?
- Genital warts, also known as venereal warts or condylomata acuminata, are one of the most common types of sexually transmitted diseases.
- As the name suggests, genital warts affect the moist tissues of the genital area. They may look like small, flesh-colored bumps or have a cauliflower-like appearance. Genital warts may be very small, or they may multiply into large clusters.
- Although genital warts can be treated with medications and surgery, they are a serious health concern. The virus that causes genital warts — the human papillomavirus (HPV) — has been associated with cervical cancer. It has also been linked with other types of genital cancers.
In women, genital warts can grow on the vulva, the walls of the vagina, the area between the external genitals and the anus, and the cervix.
The signs and symptoms of genital warts include:
- Small, flesh-colored or gray swellings in your genital area
- Several warts close together that take on a cauliflower shape
- Itching or discomfort in your genital area
- Bleeding with intercourse
Often, genital warts cause no symptoms. They may be so small and flat that they can't be seen with the naked eye. Sometimes, however, genital warts may multiply into large clusters.
Pregnancy may sometimes trigger a dormant infection, or an active infection may worsen during pregnancy.
Like warts that appear on other areas of your skin, genital warts are caused by a virus — HPV — that infects the top layers of your skin. There are more than 100 different types of HPV, but only a few can cause genital warts. These strains of the virus are highly contagious and spread through sexual contact with an infected person.
About two-thirds of people who have sexual contact with someone who has genital warts develop the condition — usually within three months of contact, but in some cases not for years.
Risk factors of becoming infected with HPV include:
- Having unprotected sex with multiple partners
- Having had another sexually transmitted disease
- Having sex with a partner whose sexual history you don't know
- Becoming sexually active at a young age
- Cancer. Cervical cancer has been closely linked with HPV infection. Certain types of HPV also are associated with cancer of the vulva, cancer of the anus and cancer of the penis. Human papillomavirus infection doesn't always lead to cancer, but it's still important for women, particularly if you've been infected with certain higher risk types of HPV, to have regular Pap tests.
- Problems during pregnancy. Genital warts may cause problems during pregnancy. Warts could enlarge, making it difficult to urinate. Warts on the vaginal wall may reduce the ability of vaginal tissues to stretch during childbirth. Rarely, a baby born to a mother with genital warts may develop warts in his or her throat. The baby may need surgery to prevent airway obstruction.
Detecting genital warts
Because it's often difficult to detect genital warts, your doctor may apply an acetic acid solution to your genitals to whiten any warts. Then, he or she may view them through a special microscope called a colposcope.
The importance of Pap tests
For women, it's important to have regular pelvic exams and Pap tests, which can help detect vaginal and cervical changes caused by genital warts or the early signs of cervical cancer — a possible complication of HPV infection.
Have a Pap test every other year, starting when you're 21. You can reduce the frequency of your Pap tests to once every three years if you're older than 30 and you've had three normal tests in a row. Talk with your doctor about the right screening schedule for you.
If you've had genital warts, you may need more frequent Pap tests, depending on the severity of your condition.