What are genital warts?
Genital warts (also known as condyloma) are a common type of sexually transmitted infection (STI), manifesting as small growths or lumps, usually pink in colour, around the genitals. They frequently occur in clusters, although sometimes there may be only a single wart. Spread by skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, anal or (occasionally) oral sex, genital warts are the most obvious symptom of infection by the human papilloma virus (HPV).
Genital warts rarely cause serious pain or discomfort themselves, but certain strains of HPV are associated with causing cancer, particularly cervical cancer, so it is important for women who have found genital warts to have regular cancer screenings.
What are the symptoms of genital warts?
Genital warts are themselves symptoms of HPV. They affect the moist tissue of the genitals and can vary in appearance. They may appear as small, flesh-coloured bumps or pale, cauliflower-like structures. They can be either hard or soft, and although they are usually painless some may cause irritation or even bleed.
They can appear anywhere on the genital or anal area, including the tip and shaft of the penis and the scrotum in men; the vulva, the walls of the vagina, and the cervix in women; and around the anus in both sexes. Sometimes, infection will not be immediately obvious because the warts are too small to see, and may even be inside the vagina, the opening of the urethra or the anus.
If you experience the following symptoms, you should get yourself checked out by a doctor:
- Small, grey or flesh coloured bumps around the genitals or anus
- Itching, burning or pain in the infected area
- Bleeding during sexual intercourse
- Changes in flow during urination that doesn’t go back to normal
- Abnormal vaginal discharge
If your sexual partner is showing any of these symptoms, it is also worth visiting a doctor in case you have been infected.
Causes of genital warts
Genital warts are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). There are more than 40 strains of HPV that can affect the genital area, which can be spread through skin-on-skin sexual contact, although in most cases, the immune system kills the virus before you develop symptoms of the infection.
The virus can be passed from person to person regardless of whether or not there are visible warts.
Genital warts can be passed on by:
- Vaginal sex
- Anal sex
- Sharing sex toys
- Oral sex (although this is rare)
Genital warts can’t be passed on by:
- Sharing towels
- Sharing cups, cutlery, etc.
- Sitting on a toilet seat
Can genital warts be prevented?
The best way to prevent the spread of HPV and avoid genital warts is to practice safe sex, using latex condoms, as well as avoiding sexual contact with infected people. However, even using condoms is not a guarantee that there will be no contact with infected skin, because warts can appear in unprotected areas around the genitals such as the scrotum.
There is also a vaccine that protects against some strains of HPV that cause genital warts and the strains that are associated with cervical cancer.
What is the treatment for genital warts?
There are several treatments for genital warts, depending on the nature of the warts and what the doctor recommends:
- Creams or liquids – you be able to apply these yourself at home, or you may have to visit a doctor’s surgery to have the cream applied.
- Surgery – there are techniques to cut, burn, or use a laser to remove the warts.
- Cryotherapy – the doctor may freeze the warts, which usually takes several sessions.
In some people, treatment is ineffective, while in others the warts return while the virus is still present in the patient’s body. There is no definitive cure, but in time the immune system may clear the body of the virus by itself.