There’s a lot to understand when it comes to human papillomavirus (HPV)—as there are more than 200 different types. (Check out our guide for a more comprehensive overview.) Here, we’re diving into genital warts (or, HPV warts), which are skin growths that are sexually transmitted infections (STI) caused by certain types of HPV.
As a quick refresher, HPV is a group of viruses, some of which are spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Sexually transmitted HPV falls into low-risk and high-risk groups, and within these groups, there are different genotypes of HPV (those categorized as higher-risk are routinely screened for as part of your cervical cancer screening). There are about 40 types of HPV that are sexually transmitted and can affect your genital area.
Genital warts are usually caused by low-risk types of HPV, such as types 6 and 11. These are not the types of HPV that typically cause cancer, but they can cause warts on or around the genitals, anus, or throat. If you notice these warts, you should visit your doctor; however, it’s important to note that many HPV infections can be asymptomatic.
HPV warts occur in both men and women. In men, if the warts are large enough to be seen, you may notice them on the tip or shaft of the penis, the scrotum, or the anus. In women, genital warts may be visible on the vulva or between the external genitals and the anus. They may also occur inside the body; on the walls of the vagina or the anal canal. Warts can also occur in the mouth or throat of someone of either sex who has had oral sex with someone infected with HPV warts.
Genital warts usually appear as a small bump or group of bumps in the genital area. They can be small or large, raised or flat, or shaped like a cauliflower. The warts may go away, stay the same, or grow in size or number.
According to Teal’s Medical Director, Elizabeth Swenson, MD, “Typically, these are painless growths that can be painful or cause bleeding if irritated. The less common symptoms occur typically when [the warts] aren't visible (they can occur within the vaginal canal) where they can cause bleeding and/or pain after intercourse. They can also itch and cause painful urination.”
Worth noting is that HPV warts can cause complications during pregnancy. The Mayo Clinic warns that while rare, warts can enlarge during pregnancy, making it difficult to urinate and/or inhibiting the stretching of vaginal tissues during childbirth. Warts can bleed when stretched during delivery, and in extremely rare cases, a baby born to a mother with genital warts can develop the infection in their airway, which is known as respiratory papillomatosis. Dr. Swenson states, “This condition can cause airway obstruction and these children can require numerous surgeries to remove the growths from their airway.”
As with any complication you wish to avoid, it’s always best to raise concerns with your doctor and ensure they know your medical history with HPV warts should you become pregnant.
If you suspect you may have genital warts, your best bet is to speak to your healthcare provider. They may be able to prescribe topical medicine to use at home or remove the warts with treatments in the office. However, it's important to note that you may still be able to to pass along the infection even if you don't have visible symptoms. If left untreated, genital warts may go away, stay the same, or grow in size or number.
In terms of prevention, Dr. Swenson advises, “Since genital warts are an HPV-related condition, the quadrivalent and nonavalent vaccinations are the best prevention available. Protected sex (using condoms) can help prevent them.”
Similarly, practicing safe sex is always wise when it comes to preventing STIs like genital warts. Avoid having sex with a partner who has active warts.
HPV vaccines were first introduced in the U.S. in 2006 and since then, among teen girls, infections with HPV types that cause most HPV cancers and genital warts have dropped 88 percent. The CDC also reports that among young adult women, these same infections have dropped 81 percent.
Gardasil, the HPV vaccine is recommended for everyone (both females & males) between ages 9-26. While it is recommended until 26, it is approved in the United Sates though the age of 45, it is worth asking your doctor about this powerful means of prevention if you were not vaccinated as a teenager.
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