Nobody ever wants to hear that they’ve contracted an infection. Especially a sexually transmitted infection. STIs affect millions of people each year, with roughly 14 million of them being victims of HPV. It is the most contagious of all the sexual diseases, and it may take months to realize you’ve contracted it. There are many different strains of the virus, with only a few of them causing warts to appear. Once an outbreak of genital warts occurs, you might wonder what to expect, how to get rid of them, and what in the world they’re all about.
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What is it Exactly?
Genital warts, or Condylomata Acuminate, are growths that appear on the genital region. They are caused by the Human Papilloma Virus and may vary from person to person.
Transmission: Genital warts are spread primarily through sexual contact, even while no outbreak is currently happening. While other types of HPV can be spread through touching of the hand, the type that causes genital warts cannot. This means that you can’t get genital warts simply by touching the genitals of another person with your hand. There must be genital-against-genital contact for the virus to spread. There is an exception to this, however, as you can contract genital warts inside your mouth through oral sex.
Once your body comes in contact with HPV, the virus enters into the skin and begins to replicate. Eventually, the viral particles will settle into the epithelial skin cells of the genitals, where it waits, dormant. Every once in a while, the virus will reactivate, replicating and growing until it bursts out of the skin as a growth. This is called an outbreak.
For more detailed information on what causes genital warts, go here.
What Do Genital Warts Look Like?
With all of the different kinds of growths and discolorations that invade our skin, an accurate description of genital warts is essential to be able to achieve a diagnosis.
Distinguishing characteristics of genital warts include:
- Size: Genital warts usually range from pinpoint-sized, to ones as large as an eraser head. For growths much larger than that, consult a physician for advice.
- Color: The average genital wart is flesh-colored or a pale pink. Although more uncommon, they have been known to appear as red, brown, or purplish as well.
- Grouping: Genital warts most often grow in clusters, or in a group of warts close together. If the outbreak keeps increasing in number, these clusters may grow into each other.
Most often, the warts are painless, but it is possible that you may experience some discomfort or irritation. When they appear around the urethra, there may be more discomfort as the flow of urine is interfered with. It is especially important to get urethral warts seen by a doctor as complications may include urinary damage and even infertility in men.
If you also have HIV, make sure to discuss your genital warts with a physician. People with HIV may not respond to HPV treatment as well as the rest of the population, and their outbreaks may be more severe and last longer, as their body’s ability to fight infection in compromised.
Getting a Diagnosis
So you think you have genital warts — now what? If possible, schedule an appointment with a physician, as they will be able to provide you with the most definitive answer. Most general practitioners are equipped to diagnose and treat sexually transmitted infections, as are dermatologists, and even urologists (if you need to see them for urethral warts).
Some things that may happen during your visit:
- External exam: Your doctor will examine the area visually, looking over the entire genital region, locating any genital warts they can find and examining any specific places you are worried about.
- Internal exam: Sometimes, more often with women, your doctor may need to look inside of your genitals to find genital warts. Areas such as the vagina, cervix, anus, and clitoris can be harder to examine without a closer, slightly more invasive look. Your physician will use a light and possibly a special scope that lets them see things closer up, kind of like a magnifying glass. To learn more about vaginal warts, click here.
- Lab test: Any suspected growths will be swabbed and packaged up to be sent off for testing. The lab will run the specimen through tests that will confirm the presence of HPV, and which strain it is.
Most likely, your doctor will decide a treatment at the time of the visit, but may wait until the lab results come back with a definitive diagnosis. Make sure to always discuss your genital warts with a sexual partner, as you can spread the infection to them even if you’re not having an outbreak.
Treating genital warts
There is no cure for HPV. This means that the viral particles will stay in your body forever, causing outbreaks of genital warts every so often throughout your life. Each outbreak lasts anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, and should eventually go away on their own.
There are many options for treating genital warts, including:
- Creams and gels: Topical treatments such as Imiquimod, Podofilin, and Trichloroacetic Acid are used to kill the growths. Most must be applied by a physician in their office.
- Surgery: You doctor may cut out the warts using special tools, done in their office or sometimes in an outpatient surgical center.
- Cryotherapy: Using liquid nitrogen, your doctor freezes the warts, killing the tissue until they slough off, leaving clear skin behind. Further details can be found here.
While there is nothing you can do once infected with HPV, there are measures to prevent it. Choose partners with a safe sexual history, practice safe sex, and consider Gardasil, the HPV vaccine. Gardasil can be given to girls and women between the age of 9 and 26, and prevents the strains of HPV that cause genital warts.
What will my future be like with genital warts?
Many people think that having genital warts will ensure them a lifetime of difficulty, but in reality, you will be able to lead a very normal life.
In regards to your prognosis, keep these in mind:
- Outbreaks: You will experience periods of an outbreak on and off throughout the years. On average, people infected with HPV can expect an outbreak at least once a year, although some may have them more or less often. The genital warts almost always go away on their own after 1-2 months without treatment, and much sooner if treated.
- Sexual activity: This may be the area you find the most problematic. Condoms will help to decrease transmission, but are not 100% effective at stopping the spread of HPV. There are areas of the body not covered by a condom that can spread the infection to your partner such as the scrotum, labia, and anus. Always discuss your genital warts with a sexual partner.
- Cervical cancer: In women with genital warts, the chance of developing cervical cancer greatly increases. Always get a regular pap smear, as the cancer is almost always cureable if found in its earliest stages. If you are under the age of 27 and have not yet contracted HPV, consider getting the Gardasil vaccine.
The first step in dealing with any kind of illness is becoming informed. If you have contracted genital warts, don’t panic. Get all the facts, and take the appropriate measures to ensure that your life with HPV doesn’t have to be a difficult one.
You can find further details of Genital warts here.