Genital warts, sometimes called venereal warts, are actually a common type of sexually transmitted disease (STD). As the name suggests, these warts affect the moist tissues of the genital area. The warts are typically flesh- or gray-colored and can be either raised or flat. They vary in size from too small to spot with the naked eye to large, uneven, cauliflower-like clusters.
In men, genital warts can grow on the tip or shaft of the penis, the anus, or the scrotum. In women, tey can grow on the vulva and perineal area and extend internally into the vagina and cervix. They can also occur in the thigh and groin area and might even develop in the throat and mouth of a person who has had oral sex with an infected person.
Like warts that appear on other areas of the skin, genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). There are over 100 different strands of HPV, but only about 40 can cause warts. A subgroup of these can lead to precancerous changes and can cause cervical, vulval, penile, and anal cancer. These strains of the virus are highly contagious and spread through sexual contact with an infected person. The most effective way to prevent catching HPV and avoid genital warts is to use safe sex practices, which include using a latex condom during sexual encounters and avoiding sexual contact with affected individuals.
Although most warts in the genital area are painless and do not cause any symptoms, there can be itching, burning, or tenderness in the infected area. Some women who have genital warts inside the vagina may have bleeding with intercourse or abnormal vaginal discharge.
These warts can be removed in different ways, but it is best to leave treatment to a physician since it is easy to damage the sensitive genital area. Small warts can be treated with chemicals such as podofilox or trichloroacetic acid (TCA), frozen with liquid hydrogen, or removed with laser surgery. Another method of wart removal is loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP), in which the physician passes a sharp, loop shaped instrument under the wart and cuts it out of the skin.
If genital warts are large or don’t go away after they’ve been treated with different methods, the doctor might try a shot of interferon, which is a chemical that stimulates the body’s immune response to fight infections and viruses. Interferon is usually injected into the warts twice a week until the warts are gone. This procedure is expensive, however.
Although all of the treatments can get rid of warts, none of them will get rid of the virus. Because the HPV will still be present in the body, the warts can return and the virus can still be spread.