What is Genital Warts?
Genital Warts are caused by a virus called Human Papillomavirus (HPV). They look like common skin warts, but they appear on the genital area (vagina, cervix and penis) and around the anus.
Some warts cannot be seen or felt. Larger warts may be pink, white, brown or gray, and occur alone or in groups that look like cauliflower. Warts may be painless, or itchy and uncomfortable.
In women, the warts can be on the vulva (vaginal lips), in the vagina, and on the cervix (entrance to the uterus). In men, the warts may be anywhere on the penis, scrotum, or urethra. Both men and women can have warts in the pubic area, anus or on the thighs
How is it spread?
HPV is spread by direct skin contact during oral, anal or vaginal sex, or to infants during childbirth. Warts may not appear from months to years after exposure to the virus. Because of this, it is difficult to know when and from whom you got the virus. Some people never get warts, even though they carry the virus.
What are the complications?
HPV may cause changes to the cells of the cervix which can lead to cervical cancer. Regular Pap tests can detect these changes early. Women who smoke also have a higher rate of cancer of the cervix. The long term effects in men are not known.
How is it diagnosed?
Warts on the genitals are diagnosed by their appearance. For a woman, an abnormal Pap may be the first sign of HPV. To confirm this, a special magnifying microscope, called a colposcope, is used to examine the cervix and upper vagina.
Warts in men are often hidden in the urethra and cannot be seen or felt. An endoscope to examine the urethra may be used to find these warts.
How are the Warts treated?
Treatments will remove the visible warts but will not remove the virus from the body. Treatment is sometimes long and frustrating. Different treatments depend on the number and location of the warts. For external warts a special medication (e.g. podophyllin, trichloroacetic acid, Condyline, Wartec) can be applied directly to the warts once or twice a week.
Women with HPV on the cervix or anyone with many warts will be referred to a specialist. Treatment may include: i) cryotherapy - a procedure where the warts are "frozen" off with liquid nitrogen ii) laser therapy where a laser beam is used to destroy the warts, or iii) electrocautery which removes the infected cells with a special instrument. About 20 per cent of warts disappear without treatment, 60 per cent respond well to medication, and the remaining 20 per cent need specialized treatment.
What about sexual partners?
When HPV is detected in one partner, the other partner should also be examined. This is especially important for women. Even if there are no visible signs of warts, the warts may be in the vagina or urethra. Women who have been in contact with HPV must have a Pap test on a regular basis, maybe as often as every 6 months. HPV is very contagious. It can spread even if no warts can be seen.
Condoms may offer some protection during intercourse.
Avoid sexual contact while the warts are present.
Ontario is expanding the publicly funded HPV immunization program by offering the HPV vaccine to people who are 26 years of age or younger and who identify as gay or bisexual, as well as men who have sex with men, including some trans people. Men who have sex with men are at increased risk of HPV infection, which can lead to penile and anal cancers.
Those who are eligible are able to receive the cancer-fighting vaccine from any of the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit's immunization or sexual health clinics, free of charge.
Where can I get more information?
Here are some resources to help answer your questions: