Genital warts are caused by a sexually transmitted viral infection. The human papilloma virus (HPV) is responsible for the infection, and it’s entirely possible to not even know you have it. The warts are usually painless lumps that form around the genital areas and anus, and may be uncomfortable or itchy. Whilst they’re relatively harmless, it’s always important to get them treated and removed so they don’t reoccur or cause problems. It’s not always possible to prevent genital warts, as they’re passed on via skin to skin contact, so if your partner is infected externally, wearing a condom may not make a difference.
Over time, your body will usually clear the virus on its own, though the sooner you seek treatment for genital warts, the easier it is to get rid of them. Most cases can be treated with topical prescription medications or minimally invasive procedures, but in some cases where the warts are severe or deeply internal, surgery may be required.
“The term genital warts can often scare people, but it’s actually one of the most common STIs. They’re easily treated and aren’t usually a cause for concern, but it’s always a good idea to have them removed as soon as possible. Many people don’t show any symptoms for a while after infection, so it’s possible to be a carrier of the infection without even knowing it. If your partner has genital warts, visit a sexual health clinic as soon as possible to make sure you’re protected.”
What are genital warts?
Genital warts are caused by a strain of HPV (human papilloma virus), which is a sexually transmitted infection. They are usually identifiable as painless lumps around the vagina, penis, or anus. The warts can grow either internally (inside the vagina or anus), or externally around the same areas. It’s one of the most common STIs, despite the fear the name can conjure up. The actual warts themselves can take months or even years to form after the person has been infected, so many people don’t even know they have the virus.
Having genital warts doesn’t mean you’ve had unprotected sex or that you’re dirty. The virus is passed on through skin to skin contact, meaning that not even condoms will fully protect you against genital warts if your partner is infected externally.
What are the symptoms of genital warts?
People with these warts tend to notice one or more painless lumps around their vagina, penis, or anus. Whilst they’re usually painless, they can be itchy, uncomfortable, and even bleed.
Some people also experience a change of flow to their pee, for example, they may notice that they’re urinating sideways. This symptom doesn’t subside with genital warts.
Unless you have the growths, you probably won’t know if you’ve been infected with this particular strain of HPV as it can lie dormant for a long time, and the warts often take a while to form.
Not everyone with the virus does develop warts, so it’s entirely possible to be a carrier of the infection without knowing it.
What do I do if I think I have genital warts?
If you think you have the infection, visit your local sexual health clinic where treatment options will be discussed.
If you know your partner has genital warts or HPV, but you’re showing no symptoms, it’s still important to visit a clinic to be on the safe side and to prevent any warts from forming.
Unfortunately, a nurse won’t be able to tell by inspecting the warts how long you’ve had them or who passed them on to you, and it certainly doesn’t mean that someone’s cheated if you’re in a long-term relationship.
Treatments for genital warts
Luckily, genital warts can be treated. In mild cases, you may be able to use a specially formulated cream or lotion, applied to the affected area over the course of a few weeks. These creams work by either burning the warts from your skin, or by helping your body’s immune system to fight the virus along with the warts. It’s important to know that any over-the-counter wart treatments you can get from a chemist or supermarket are absolutely not to be used on genital warts. Not only will they not treat the problem, but they could cause other issues if you use them in or around your genitals. The correct treatments and creams are only available on prescription. If you feel too embarrassed to visit your local clinic, you can also buy Aldara cream or Wartec (also sold as Warticon) online from Doctor4U, subject to approval.
Some cases won’t respond to these prescription medications, or may keep reoccurring. In this cases, you may need to be treated at your local sexual health clinic. In these cases, a nurse will often burn or freeze the warts periodically over a few weeks until they drop off. Due to the nature of these treatments, scarring and irritation can occur, though they are usually effective at removing the problem.
In some severe cases, you may even need laser surgery to remove internal warts that are unable to be treated in any other way. Depending on the extremity of the case, you may be given local or even general anaesthetic during the process.
No matter what treatment option you decide on, it’s widely known that the sooner you treat the condition, the easier it is to get rid of the warts and prevent recurrence.
Is there a cure for genital warts?
Strictly speaking, no. However, as mentioned above, they can be removed. In most cases, the body’s natural immune system will clear the virus over time, though if you’ve recently had treatment for genital warts, it’s a good idea to avoid sex whilst you’re recovering.
Whilst there’s currently no “cure” for the STI, a HPV vaccine is offered to all girls in year 8 in the UK. Whilst this is to protect from cervical cancer, the vaccine also protects against the strains of HPV that cause genital warts. From 2019, it is expected that the same vaccine will also be offered to boys of the same age, so it’s hoped that there will be fewer cases of genital warts in the future. Gay and bisexual men can currently access the same vaccine from sexual health clinics up to the age of 45.
Can genital warts cause cancer?
No. Although some types of cancer are also caused by HPV, there are so many different strains. Genital warts don’t share the same strains as cervical cancer or others, so they’ll neither cause it to develop or increase your risk of it. However, it is possible to have both. Make sure you attend your smear test every time to make sure you’re protected.
Genital warts in pregnancy
If you’ve been infected with the type of HPV that causes genital warts, you might find that pregnancy makes your symptoms worse, or might even make them appear for the first time. You’re advised to seek treatment as you usually would, though some creams might not be suitable for pregnant mums. It’s a good idea to have them removed before you give birth, as in very rare cases, it’s possible to pass the infection on to your baby during delivery.