Understanding and treating genital warts

Concerned about genital warts?

Concerned about genital warts? Read on to find out more about the infection behind the symptoms, how to recognise the signs, and how to get rid of genital warts.

Understanding and treating genital warts

Genital warts is a common STI caused by certain strains of HPV (the human papillomavirus). It is highly contagious and can be transmitted via skin-to-skin contact made during vaginal and anal sex rather than through bodily fluids, meaning that it is easily caught even when condoms and dental dams are used.

Many people are infected with these particular strains of HPV without ever experiencing any symptoms, though they can still transmit the infection to others.

As with any STI, the stigma attached to genital warts can be emotionally taxing on the sufferer and make it difficult to sort out the myths from the facts. Rather than getting caught up in hearsay, read more here about the human papillomavirus, symptoms to pay attention to, and the genital warts treatments available to you if you are exposed to the infection.

What Causes the Condition?

HPV encompasses more than 100 different types of infection, some of which are more serious than others. Though HPV has many documented strains, genital warts are most commonly caused by HPV6 and HPV11. These are sexually transmitted, and affect many people around the world, although the severity of the symptoms differs drastically between individuals.

How is the Condition Spread?

Genital warts are one of the most common STIs in the UK; many of us will come into contact with the infection at some point in our lives, without necessarily contracting it ourselves or suffering from any symptoms.

As with any STI, genital warts (and HPV in general) is spread through sexual contact. Vaginal and anal sex can expose you to infection if your partner is a carrier, though instances of transmission via oral sex are far more rare.

What are the Symptoms of Genital Warts?

Many people infected by genital warts will not exhibit any outward symptoms, but they are still able to pass the condition on to their sexual partners.

If symptoms do occur, then the appearance of genital warts can vary. They will often appear in ‘cops’ (tight clusters, with a bumpy texture); they can be white or remain skin coloured, and range in size from very small, to large.

Genital warts can appear on the penis, scrotum, anus, vulva, vagina and cervix, as well as the upper thighs. They can be itchy, although they are rarely painful; if irritated by clothing or friction, then they can bleed a small amount.

Due to the positioning of the warts, it may cause a change in the direction of urine as it exits the body.

Genital warts will typically appear several weeks or months after you contract the infection, but this asymptomatic period can last for a few years, making it very difficult to ascertain when you were exposed. Similarly, you may never experience any visible symptoms at all, but continue to transmit the infection to others.

Are Genital Warts Serious?

It is unlikely that genital warts will cause any long-term health issues, although they can be uncomfortable and upsetting for those who experience symptoms.

Many people are aware that certain strains of HPV are known to cause cervical cancer. This is a result of a cell mutation within the cervix and is not caused by the same strain of HPV that causes genital warts. The HPV vaccine offered to girls and boys of 12-13 years in the UK is designed to provide protection from both of these strains of HPV.

How Effective Are Condoms Against Genital Warts?

Condoms are the only form of birth control that protect against the spread of sexually transmitted illnesses (STIs) such as chlamydia, HIV, and gonorrhoea. However, HPV is often spread through contact with infected skin, and these areas are left unprotected by condoms. It is important that you and your sexual partner are upfront with one another about any conditions you might have, prior to making sexual contact.

Dental dams also offer a level of protection against the transmission of genital warts.

Is There a Medication for Genital Warts?

While there is no cure for the HPV virus, there are a number of topical treatments available to help manage the symptoms and replace infected skin cells over time. In some cases, these warts will go away for good, though some people may experience recurrences that require further treatment.

Warticon and Condyline are branded versions of podophyllotoxin, an effective genital warts treatment which slows the growth and spread of genital warts by inhibiting cell division. Alternatively, Aldara (imiquimod) helps the body’s natural immune system to fight off the warts.

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