Genital Warts: Common Causes, Symptoms, Treatments & More
Written By: Dr. Reem Al Kaddah
Dr. Reem Al Kaddah is a dermatologist with a specialisation in venereology. She has completed her Masters from Damascus University in Syria.
What are Genital Warts?
Genital warts are a common indication of sexually transmitted infection caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). They affect both men and women, and it may take months after initial exposure to become noticeable. They appear as growths of skin on the genital area, with varying appearances. Genital wart symptoms can cause significant discomfort. Fortunately, they are easily diagnosed, and a variety of treatment options are available.
Signs and symptoms of Genital Warts
In most cases, genital warts are visible projections of the skin. Genital warts in women appear on the skin of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus, or external genitalia. In men, they may develop on the skin of the penis, scrotum, thighs, or anus in men. Genital warts can also develop on the lips, mouth, tongue and throat. A genital wart can have varying sizes and shapes. While most might have a white or skin-colored, cauliflower-like appearance, others can present differently:
- Flat genital warts
- Pink or red swellings on the genital area
Some genital warts can be invisible, and may cause symptoms such as:
- Itching or discomfort
- Difficulty or even bleeding during sexual intercourse
When to see a doctor for Genital Warts?
If you notice any of the symptoms of genital warts, or become aware of your partner having genital warts, you should see your doctor as soon as possible. Experiencing itching, burning sensations on the skin of the genital area or pain during sexual activity may also hint at the presence of infection even if you can’t see genital warts.
Causes of Genital Warts
Genital warts are characteristic of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections, which affects both men and women. It is spread through skin-to-skin contact which may occur during sex of any type, or even non-sexually. HPV is not contracted through body fluids like some other viruses. Women tend to be at greater risk of developing genital warts, and complications if they don’t receive timely treatment.
Risk Factors for Genital Warts
Certain factors can contribute to the development of genital wart symptoms more commonly in some people than others. You are at greater risk if you:
- Have unprotected sexual contact
- Have multiple sexual partners
- Have history of any sexually transmitted disease
- Suffer from any condition that is weakening your immune system, such as HIV
- Use immunosuppressant drugs, such as those prescribed after organ transplant
Complications of Genital Warts
Genital warts may produce no symptoms in many individuals. However, overlooking genital wart symptoms or avoiding treatment might result in the following complications:
- Cancer: High-risk HPV strains can induce the development of cancer at sites of infection over time if the treatment of genital warts is not timely or complete. Genital warts in women can lead to cervical cancer, as well as cancers of the vulva, vagina, or anus. In men, prostate cancers are more common and involve the penis, scrotum, or anus.
- Difficulty during pregnancy: Genital warts can become enlarged to the extent that they cause pain during urination and labor by restricting passages and limiting the vagina’s ability to stretch. Excessive stress on warts in the vagina or vulva during the birthing process can cause bleeding from genital warts.
- Transmission of infection to child during labor: Rarely, the baby might come into contact with the genital warts while passing through the vagina, and might develop warts themselves. These warts can be present in the baby’s throat, and require surgical resection to prevent difficulty in breathing.
Diagnosis of Genital Warts
Genital warts can be easy to spot. If you suspect that you may be infected with HPV, you can schedule an appointment with your doctor or dermatologist for an examination to confirm the diagnosis. If genital wart symptoms are not obvious on inspection of the external genitalia, the following tests may be used:
- Vinegar solution test: Genital warts caused by HPV turn white when they come into contact with vinegar. This test helps your doctor confirm the diagnosis in case of warts that might not be prominent otherwise.
- Pap smear test: This test is performed for genital warts in women. A sample swab is taken from the inside of the cervix or vagina, which is then observed for abnormalities that could lead to cancer.
- HPV DNA test: The analysis of samples from the skin can help identify the strain of HPV responsible for genital warts. This information is important since high-risk HPV can cause cancer.
Treatment of Genital Warts
In many cases, genital warts can clear up without treatment, or the symptoms of genital warts may not be troublesome. However, treatment of genital warts can protect you from later complications, and your partner from infection, while adding to your confidence at the same time. Mainstream medication or creams for warts are usually unsuitable for use in the genital area since your skin is much more sensitive in this region. Your doctor can prescribe specific topical ointments for genital wart treatment. If genital wart treatment with topical application of medication shows inadequate response, or is not an option as in the case of pregnant women, surgery to remove genital warts is preferred:
- Surgical excision: This involves manual dissection of the genital warts using a blade by the doctor.
- Electrocautery: Electric current is used to remove the genital wart.
- Freezing with liquid nitrogen: Also known as ‘cryotherapy’, this procedure involves freezing the genital wart. The skin then peels off and is replaced with fresh, normal skin. This is considered to be one of the best and safe treatment options.
- Laser removal: This genital wart treatment is usually reserved for lesions that might be difficult to remove otherwise.
Prevention of Genital Warts
The high prevalence of HPV among men and women puts all sexually active individuals at risk of developing genital warts. Hence, it is important to take precautionary measures to avoid the inconvenience that results from genital warts:
- Get vaccinated for HPV
- Use a condom when engaging in sexual activity of any kind
- Be vigilant of genital wart symptoms
- Avoid having multiple sexual partners
For more information on common causes, symptoms, remedies, and treatments of genital warts, get in touch with us.
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