What You Don't—But Should—Know About Genital Warts
Medically Reviewed by Nancy R. Berman, ANP-BC, NCMP
The Millennium Medical Group, PC, a division of Michigan Healthcare Professionals
Just because something is uncomfortable to talk about doesn't mean it should be ignored. Good thing we're not shy—we're prepared to get the conversation started about genital warts, one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STD) in the United States.i
About one in 100 sexually active adults have genital warts at any given time,ii yet many people don't talk about it with their health care providers as much as they should.
A recent survey by HealthyWomen and PharmaDerm found that almost half of consumer respondents (48 percent; n=247/519) said they are "not very knowledgeable" about genital warts, and only 36 percent of health care professionals who responded to the survey said they cover the basics of genital warts with all patients (n=21/59).iii
Until there is a better understanding of genital warts, how can we expect to reduce the prevalence of this common STD? It's time to take matters into your own hands and learn more about genital warts.
What are genital warts?
Genital warts are small bumps or groups of bumps caused by low-risk types of the human papillomavirus (HPV).iv, v As the name suggests, genital warts affect the moist tissues of the genital area.iv Some warts are so small and flat they cannot be seen with the naked eye,v while others are larger clusters of HPV-infected cells and may have a flat, dome-shaped or cauliflower-like appearance.iv You may have a few or many warts.iv
Here are more facts about genital warts:
- HPV strains 6 and 11 cause 90 percent of genital warts.iv
- Not all people who are exposed to HPV strains 6 or 11 will see genital warts.v
- One of the available HPV vaccines offer protection against genital and anal warts in boys and men.v
- Practicing safe sex—wearing a condom every time you have sex—can substantially reduce your risk of getting genital warts.
- Although condom use can reduce your risk, it is not 100 percent effective. You can still get genital warts.v
- There's no treatment for HPV, but there are treatments for the health problems that HPV can cause, like genital warts.vi
- Make sure you talk to your health care provider about all STDs, including genital warts and cervical cancer screening.
How do I start a conversation with my health care provider?
Nearly half (47 percent; n=16/34) of health care professionals who responded to the survey think that the biggest barrier to the proper diagnosis and treatment of genital warts is that patients are too embarrassed to discuss symptoms.iii
If you suspect you may have genital warts, don't be embarrassed. Book an appointment with your health care provider. Before your appointment, write a list describing:
- Symptoms. Describe your symptoms and note whether your sexual partner has ever had similar symptoms.
- Sexual history. List all recent exposures to possible sources of infection. These may include having unprotected sex or sex with a new partner.
- Key medical information. Write down any other conditions you're being treated for and the names of any medications, vitamins or supplements that you're taking.
How are genital warts diagnosed?
Genital warts can be diagnosed through visual inspection, magnifying the affected area to check for small genital warts and to distinguish them from normal skin. Sometimes an instrument called a colposcope is used to magnify the area and spot warts that cannot be seen with the naked eye.v
Once diagnosed, it's important to seek medical attention. While some warts can go away on their own, they can also grow in size and number without proper treatment.vi
The survey found that only 2 of 10 health care professionals said they encourage patients to do their own research before agreeing on a treatment regimen (n=12/55).iii
Treatment is important, especially if you are experiencing itching, burning, pain or emotional distress.vii Like all STDs, genital warts are contagious—even if no warts are visible—so it's also important to seek treatment to help avoid spreading the infection to others.v
What are my treatment options?
Nearly half of consumers surveyed (43 percent; n=134/309) said that in addition to health implications, the treatment would be the most upsetting aspect of having genital wartsiii, but with a variety of treatment options available, there's no reason to fear treatment.
Available treatments for genital warts are categorized as patient-applied and provider-administered. Patient-applied treatments include prescription creams and ointments that patients use at home, while provider-administered treatments consist of surgical and nonsurgical methods.v
It's always best to seek medical attention and work with your doctor to determine a treatment regimen that is right for you.
Consider printing this list of questions and bringing it to your next appointment. Don't forget to add your own questions.
- Am I due for any regular screenings or tests?
- Have I previously been screened for HPV? If so, what were the results?
- Is the HPV vaccine an option for me?
- I've noticed some bumps in my genital area. Could they be genital warts?
If diagnosed with genital warts:
- What are my treatment options for genital warts?
- Where can I go for additional information? Do you have any materials I can take home?
- Are there any treatment concerns/restrictions given my diagnosis of _________ (e.g., diabetes, hypertension, other STDs, etc.)?
- Are there any treatment concerns/restrictions given my use of other medications (e.g., birth control, diabetes medication, etc.)?
- How long am I contagious for? Do I have to abstain from sex?
- Given my diagnosis, do you recommend any additional tests/screenings for other conditions?
Add additional questions here:
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This resource was created with the support of PharmaDerm, a division of Fougera Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
An online survey was fielded between February 25 and March 28, 2016 by HealthyWomen in partnership with PharmaDerm, a division of Fougera Pharmaceuticals Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sandoz Inc. A total of 1,041 individuals participated, including 873 from patients/consumers and 168 from health care providers. Response rate for each individual survey question varied; full survey results can be found here.
i Diseases and Conditions: Genital Warts. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/genital-warts/basics/definition/con-20019380. Accessed November 17, 2016.
ii CDC. HPV – Also Known as the Human Papillomavirus. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/parents/diseases/teen/hpv-indepth-color.pdf. Accessed October 19, 2016.
iii Data on File. HealthyWomen Survey. Let's Talk About Sexual Health – Warts and All, 2016.
iv Yanofsky, VR, Patel RV, Goldenberg G. Genital Warts: A Comprehensive Review. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. 2012;5(6):25–36.
v Genital Warts. U.S. National Library of Medicine MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000886.htm. Accessed October 19, 2016.
vi CDC. Genital HPV infection - Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm. Accessed October 19, 2016.
vii Diseases and Conditions: Genital Warts. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/genital-warts/basics/treatment/con-20019380. Accessed October 19, 2016.