Causes and symptoms: Genital warts are caused by Human Papillomavirus (HPV). Scientists have identifies more then 60 strains of this virus. About one-third of the HPV types live only in genital tissue. Genital warts are spread by sexual contact with an infected partner and are very contagious. Approximately two-thirds of people who have sexual contact with a partner with genital warts will develop warts, usually within three months of contact. Some types of the virus cause common skin warts. Other high-risk types of HPV cause cervical cancer and other genital cancers.
Like many other sexually transmitted diseases, HPV often attacks the body silently, i.e. there are no visible symptoms. If the virus causes warts, they usually first appear as small, hard painless bumps. In women, the warts occur on the outside and inside of the vagina, on the cervix, or around the anus. Men are less likely to develop genital warts. However, if they do, the warts appear on the tip of the penis. They also may be found on the shaft of the penis, on the scrotum, or around the anus. On rare occasions, genital warts may appear in the mouth or throat of a person who has had oral sex with an infected person. Rarely, genital warts also can develop in the mouth or throat of a person who has had oral sexual contact with an infected person.
Diagnosis: If a person has genital warts, a doctor should be able to spot the problem through a direct visual examination. However, may deem it necessary to perform a colposcopy or a biopsy. In the former procedure, the doctor views the vagina and cervix through a magnifying instrument. In the case of a biopsy, a small sample of tissue is taken from the cervix and examined under a microscope. Abnormal Pap smear results could also indicate the presence of HPV infection and women who show such results should be examined further.
Treatment: Though the symptoms of this disease can be treated, once the virus has got into a person's system, it is there to stay and therefore there is a chance of the warts recurring. Some people choose to do nothing about the warts. In such cases, the warts may disappear or may develop a fleshy, small raised growth with a cauliflower-like appearance. Since there is no way to tell whether the warts will stay or grow if left untreated, it is better to play safe and get them treated.
Genital warts are treated with a topical drug (applied to the skin in the form of creams or solutions), by freezing (cryosurgery), laser treatment or even surgery if they do not respond to other methods of treatment. If the warts recur, doctors may inject a drug interferon directly into the warts.
Complications: High-risk viruses can cause cervical cancer and are also associated with vulvar cancer, anal cancer, and cancer of the penis (a rare cancer). It is important for women to have regular Pap smears as potentially pre-cancerous cervical disease is easily treated.
In the case of pregnant women, genital warts may become enlarged during pregnancy making it difficult for the women to urinate. If the warts are on the vaginal wall, they can make the vagina less elastic and cause obstruction during delivery.
Very rarely, babies born to women infected with HPV develop warts in the throat. In the event that this occurs, it puts the baby's life at risk and requires frequent laser surgery to prevent blocking of the airways.
Prevention: The virus is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact. Thus, if warts are visible in the genital area, couples should abstain from having intercourse until the warts have been treated. If they do want to have intercourse, they must use a condom, which will provide some measure of protection.