Overview – What is it?
Genital warts are one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). They appear on the genitals and look like small flesh-coloured bumps which may at times, be hard to notice. They can cause itching, bleeding during intercourse and burning, among other symptoms.
Genital warts can be diagnosed through a physical exam, pap smear test or HPV test. The treatment of this condition can include removal of the warts surgically or through use of medication. However, the virus cannot be killed.
To prevent yourself from getting genital warts you should use a condom when having intercourse, get vaccinated against the HPV virus and limit your number of sexual partners, among other preventive measures.
Causes – What causes it?
Genital warts are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) which has over 100 types and over 40 of them specifically affect the genital area. This virus is spread through sexual intercourse with an infected person or skin to skin contact with an infected person.
Risk factors for genital warts are:
- Having unprotected sex with multiple partners
- Having a previous sexually transmitted infection (STI)
- Becoming sexually active at a young age
- Having sex with a partner without knowing their sexual history
Symptoms – What do you feel?
Genital warts may not always be visible with the naked eye and may therefore be hard to notice. These are some of the symptoms for this disease:
- Small, skin-coloured or slightly darker bumps which may appear on the penis, scrotum, thighs, groin or inside the anus, in men. They can also appear on or inside the vagina or anus and cervix, in women. They can be spread or close together appearing like cauliflower.
- Itching or discomfort in the genital area
- Vaginal discharge in women
- Bleeding during sex
- Burning sensation
Diagnosis – How do you diagnose it?
It may be difficult to diagnose genital warts especially because they may be too small and in an unnoticeable area. If you have the symptoms for genital warts, you should see a doctor.
- Initial consultation: During this, the doctor will find out your medical history and find out the symptoms you are experiencing after which a physical exam will be done. If they are too small to see, the doctor will apply a mild acetic acid on the genital area to turn the warts white and make them visible through a colposcope, which is a special magnifying instrument.
- Pelvic exam: This is done to check for any signs or symptoms of genital warts as the warts may appear inside the body.
- Pap smear test: This test is available for women and is done by taking a sample of cells from the cervix using a speculum which opens the vagina allowing for the sample to be taken. The cells are then examined using a microscope for any abnormalities that may indicate the presence of HPV. This test is also used to test for cervical cancer.
Treatment – How do you treat it?
Genital warts may not require treatment, especially if they do not cause any discomfort. However, if they are causing discomfort you may need treatment using:
- Medications: These are applied directly to the skin. Some of the medicines used are:
- Imiquimod which is a cream applied directly to the affected area to boost the body’s immune system enabling it to fight genital warts. During the use of this cream, you should not have sex as it can weaken condoms or irritate your partner’s skin.
- Trichloroacetic acid which burns off genital warts and can be used to treat internal warts.
- Sinecatechins which is a cream used to treat external warts as well as warts inside or around the anal area.
- Surgery: This is done to treat warts that do not respond to medications and to remove large warts. It can also be done for pregnant women to avoid their babies being exposed to the medications during birth. Some surgical procedures used to treat warts are:
- Electrocautery: A procedure that uses electrical current to burn off the warts after which you may experience pain and swelling.
- Laser treatments: Uses an intense beam of light to burn off the warts and may cause scarring and pain.
- Cryotherapy: This procedure involves the freezing of genital warts using liquid nitrogen causing blisters around the warts which heal and allow for new skin to appear. This treatment option may need to be repeated.
- Surgical excision: A doctor uses special tools to cut off the warts while you are under local or general anaesthesia.
Prevention – How do you prevent it?
The best way to protect yourself from getting genital warts is by getting vaccinated against the virus. The vaccine is available for every individual until the age of 26 and can be given from as early as 9 years.
Other ways to prevent genital warts are by:
- Using a condom or dental dam during sexual intercourse
- Not having sex, even with a condom, if you have visible symptoms of genital warts as it can be spread through skin to skin contact
- Limiting your number of sexual partners
- Ensuring that you and your partner are tested and know each other’s sexual health state
- Getting regular screening or testing for HPV
- Not sharing sex toys
- Not having sex during the treatment of genital warts