What are genital warts?

Genital warts are the most common sexually transmitted infection.  They appear as lesions of the penis, vagina, and anus.  They are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), which has many different types, or strains.

Different types of HPV cause different health problems, such as hand warts, genital warts, and precancerous lesions of the male and female genitalia.  In the case of genital warts, HPV infects the skin cells and causes them to grow abnormally.

The warts usually appear as round, flat, or raised flesh-colored bumps on the penis, vagina, or anus.  Their appearance can be varied: for example, there may be a few small warts, or large clusters of warts.

Individuals infected with the strain of HPV that causes warts may not actually go on to develop the warts, and therefore may be unaware that they have the infection.  The warts can emerge weeks or even months after sex with an infected partner.

Genital Warts: Before and After Photos

How do people get genital warts?

Certain practices increase the likelihood of becoming infected with the virus that causes genital warts.  An increased risk is associated with a higher number of sexual partners or sex with a new partner.  The virus can be transmitted between straight or gay couples and during any type of sex (oral, anal, or vaginal sex).

How can I protect myself from genital warts?

There are two types of vaccines available to prevent HPV infection: Cervarix® and Gardasil®.  Both vaccines protect females against the strains of HPV that cause most cervical cancers.  Gardasil offers additional protection against most strains of genital warts.

I have genital warts- what can I do?

Although genital warts can be very upsetting, it is important to understand that you are not alone and treatments do exist.  Luckily, genital warts are not cancerous and will not turn into cancer.  Before choosing a method of treatment, your doctor will consider your overall health status, the number and size of warts, and the specific areas in which the warts are located.

Imiquimod (Aldara™) may be prescribed for application to the surface of the warts.  This medicine works by strengthening the immune system so that it can fight the actual virus (HPV) that is causing the warts.

Your doctor may use any of a number of methods to physically remove the warts.  Some treatments require repeated visits.  All of the techniques listed below remove the external manifestation of the virus: the warts.  The treatments described below may not clear the virus that causes the warts from the body. Possible treatment methods include the following:

  • Excision: Each wart is cut out with a small blade.
  • Cryosurgery: Warts are frozen with liquid nitrogen, which kills the cells that form the wart.
  • Electrocautery: The wart cells are killed by an electric current.

Lasers: The wart cells are destroyed by laser beams.