What are they?
Genital warts are lumps that usually grow near the genitals. They are caused by a virus called the human papillomavirus (HPV). There are several types of HPV, some of which cause cervical cancer in women.
Genital warts can be flat or lumpy, look like a cauliflower, or be on a stalk, be single or multiple. Warts on moist skin (such as the skin near the vagina or on the penis) are usually soft and flesh coloured.
How does one get infected?
The virus spreads from one person to another by skin contact. This usually happens:
- During sex (whether oral or anal)
- When genitals of both partners come in contact, even without having sex
- When either partner touches the other’s genital area.
- When either partner touches the other after touching their genitals.
It is important to know that viral spread can occur even though none of the partners has symptoms.
What are the symptoms?
Genital warts often don’t cause any symptoms. But they can occasionally cause pain or itch. They may also make it hard to have sex if they block the vagina.
What treatments work?
Genital warts often clear up by themselves. So if they are not causing any problems, you may want to observe and see if they go away on their own.
There are many treatments that can help against genital warts and even though you may be able to treat the warts yourself, it is often advisable to see a doctor first. Apart from conducting further tests to be sure the lumps are not caused by more serious conditions, the doctor also applies experience to decide the best treatment for you.
Some of the treatments that you could use at home include:
• Sinecatechins, also known as Polyphenon E
You will need your doctor to direct you on how to use them. It is also best to avoid these when pregnant.
Treatments that have to be done by a doctor or nurse include:
• Trichloroacetic acid (TCA)
• Cryotherapy. Here, the warts are destroyed by freezing them with liquid nitrogen. This can be painful and may need to be done several times.
• Surgery. This can be done in one session and is usually safe for pregnant women.
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How to prevent genital warts
Abstinence is the only absolute preventive measure against HPV. Condoms don’t offer complete protection because not all the skin in the genital area is protected by condoms. However, using them whenever you have sex can reduce your risk of being infected with HPV.
A vaccine is available to help prevent genital warts. It can also help to protect against cervical cancer in women. The doctor will administer this vaccine according to your country’s guidelines.
What will happen to me?
Genital warts can clear up on their own within months or years as your immune system fights off the virus. People with weak immune systems find it more difficult to handle the warts on their own, and are more likely to have them back several months after treatment.