At Peech, we want to break down the taboos surrounding sex and sexuality, so in this series of articles we're discussing sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). We would like to emphasize how STDs do not make you gross or wrong or any other negative stereotype associated with STDs - it's merely infections, that in most cases can be treated easily and quickly. Give our articles about herpes, clamydia and gonorrhea a read as well, and learn something new about STDs
There are over 100 different types of human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause different types of infections. Some of these types cause warts, like foot warts or genital warts, while other types cause of cancer, most commonly cervical cancer. There is also an HPV vaccine that many typically get as a child, but does it protect against genital warts? Read along and learn more here
What are genital warts?
Genital warts are caused by the virus human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV makes the cells on the surface of the skin multiply, which is why you get thickenings in the skin. In technical terms they are called condylomas. There are two types of HPV that can cause genital warts, namely HPV 6 and 11. There are also other types of HPV, some that can lead to cancer, but this is not the same type that causes genital warts. So you don't have to fear developing cancer just because you have genital warts.
Genital warts are transmitted by mucosal contact or close physical contact, and therefore especially during sexual contact. If you are pregnant, smoke or have a weakened immune system, you have a greater risk of getting with genital warts.
What are the symptoms of genital warts?
As with all other sexually transmitted diseases, you can easily have the virus in your body without getting symptoms. In fact, it is estimated that 70-80% of sexually active people will have the HPV virus in their body at some point in their lives, although the vast majority do not develop visible symptoms, such as genital warts.
When you do get symptoms, they typically come 1-6 months after you have been in contact with the HPV virus - but it can also take a shorter or longer time. Therefore, it can be difficult to determine exactly when you have been infected. Genital warts appear individually or in small groups, where each wart is approximately 2-10 mm in circumference. On dry skin they can feel firm, while on mucous membranes they are more moist and cauliflower-like. For people with a vulva, genital warts are typically located at the opening of the vagina, between the labia, on the perineum, on the clitoris, in and around the rectum or all the way inside the cervix. Thus, genital warts may sit in non-visible places, and you may have them without realizing it, apart from irritation or a change in discharge. These can be detected with a gynecological examination.
For people with a penis, the warts can be under and around the foreskin, on the head of the penis, at the perineum, and in and around the urethra and rectum. Regardless of location, genital warts can cause irritation and itching, but typically do not hurt.
If you want to read more about how to test for genital warts, as well as where you can receive treatment, you can see our article here.
How to treat genital warts?
There are several different ways to prevent, treat and remove genital warts. Genital warts may disappear on their own without treatment, but this may take several years. Therefore, it is recommended that you get some form of treatment. Generally there is not one treatment for genital warts that's better than others; if one kind doesn't work, try the next one. You must also be aware that there is a risk of genital warts coming back after the end of the treatment. This may be because the areas around the genital warts can store the HPV virus and only cause visible symptoms after some time. You thus treat the visible symptoms of the virus, but not the virus itself, as there is no treatment for this. The virus only disappears when the body has formed enough antibodies to fight it, which 90% do. It's an annoying and slow process, so the best thing to do is arm yourself with patience.
To prevent or lower the risk of genital warts, there are various things you can do. The HPV vaccine, which is part of the childhood vaccination programme, protects against 9 out of 10 cases of anal cancer and genital warts. You are therefore much less likely to get genital warts if you have had your HPV vaccine - but remember it's not impossible.
You can also use contraception, but just like with herpes, you are not completely protected from passing on the virus. Genital warts can sit in places where, for example, condoms or dental dams can't cover, and you can thus still risk passing the virus on to others.
If you have genital warts, you treat them with medicine or cream that you apply to the warts. Both methods can cause irritation, burning or small wounds. If the warts are large, you can in certain cases have them burned, cut or frozen off by your doctor, which of course can cause discomfort. You should never try to cut off warts yourself, both because you can hurt yourself, but also because you risk spreading the virus to new areas.
Tell your partner(s)
It is always important to inform your partner(s) if you have or are diagnosed with genital warts. This is mainly because it's so contagious - 70% of the partners of people with genital warts also have genital warts.
It can feel like an uncomfortable conversation to initiate, especially if it's with people you may not know very well. It can also be difficult to determine how far back in time you have to go and who you have to inform, as you may have had the HPV virus in your body for a long time before getting visible symptoms. A rule of thumb is therefore to simply inform current partners of the risk.
You also have to remember that you are not wrong or dirty or slutty, or any of the other negative prejudices that are so widespread when it comes to STDs. Anyone can potentially get an STD if they have unprotected sex, regardless of their number of sexual partners. You should also remember that genital warts do not cause permanent harm such as sterility, which can be caused by untreated gonorrhea or chlamydia. So it can be difficult and annoying to treat genital warts, but it's not the end of the world.