Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a collection of 150 different types of viruses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Some of these viruses cause cancer in both men and women, including cervical cancer and some oral cancers. Other types of HPV can cause genital warts — growths around the anus, vulva, penis, or vagina.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States. There are 14 million people infected every year in the United States alone. In fact, it’s so common that almost everyone will get HPV at some point if they haven’t vaccinated, according to the CDC.
The virus is spread through sexual contact, like oral, anal, or vaginal sex. However, it can also be spread with just skin-to-skin contact, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). It can be spread even if the person you’re having sex with does not have any symptoms. In fact, you may have HPV and not know it for years.
What are genital warts?
HPV is so named because of the warts or papillomas that form with some types of the virus. These growths of tissue can appear years after you have been infected. The actual warts can be big or small, raised or flat, and even cauliflower-like in shape. They are not painful in general, or to the touch, which can lead some people to discount them. Your doctor or nurse will usually make a diagnosis by looking at them during an exam.
In women, the most common places to find these warts include the labia, the vagina, and the anus. The warts may be flesh-colored or slightly discolored, and the texture may be slightly rough. Men may have warts on their penis or inside or around their anus.
Treatments for genital warts
There are many kinds of treatments available for genital warts. These can include topical medications applied over the course of several months by the patient, like imiquimod and podophyllotoxin. These medications provoke an immune response to eliminate the warts, or interfere with replication of the virus.
There are also many simple office treatments performed by a physician to treat warts. Cryotherapy (freezing the warts) is the most common. Trichloroacetic acid may be used to treat small warts. Both of these may require a series of treatments over a period of several weeks.
Surgical techniques in an operating room are sometimes used in more complicated cases (for instance, warts that have not responded to other treatments, or very large areas of warts). Your doctor will let you know if these kinds of techniques are necessary, but most warts can be treated by you and your doctor in the comfort of your home or the clinic.
Even with treatment, the warts may come back again. This is because the doctor can only treat what is seen, and sometimes the virus is not active during the time of treatment. For this reason, some patients will choose not to treat the warts.
The emotional impact of genital warts
No one is thrilled to learn they have genital warts. Some research has found that genital warts can significantly impact emotional and sexual well-being.
Protecting yourself from genital warts: The HPV vaccine
The best way to treat genital warts is to avoid HPV, and, luckily, there is a clear way to reduce your risk of getting the virus. Since 2006, there have been HPV vaccines available. These vaccines are considered safe and effective at preventing the transmission of HPV. Generally, vaccines are used for men and women between the ages of 9 and 26. The number of shots in a series to help prevent HPV varies based on your age.
Because there are many types of HPV, it’s important to know that the vaccinations are aimed at specific viruses that create the most risk of cancer along with the types that cause the most cases of genital warts. For example, the most recent vaccine, Gardasil 9, protects against seven high-risk cancer-causing types along with the two types that cause 90 percent of genital warts cases, according to the American Cancer Society.
The side effects related to the vaccination are fairly typical of any vaccine, according to the CDC. They can include pain or redness at the site of injection, tiredness, or low-grade fever.
Doctors also recommend that you limit the number of sexual partners you have and wear male or female condoms when having sex, according to ACOG. They also acknowledge that this will not be 100 percent effective at preventing the spread of HPV.
In the end, it’s important to realize that STIs like HPV are rampant. You don’t know who is and who is not infected simply by looking. This means that you should consider long-term protection with the use of one of the HPV vaccines, and always use condoms during sexual activity.