Genital warts are small, flesh-colored bumps that develop on the moist tissues of the genital area. They may start as a single wart or as a cluster of smaller warts that look cauliflower-like in appearance. Sometimes, genital warts are so small that they’re difficult to see.
You get genital warts by becoming infected with HPV through sexual contact from someone who's already infected. Because many people with HPV don’t ever have symptoms, it’s possible to get HPV and develop warts from a partner who doesn’t know they have HPV and never had visible warts. In women, warts usually occur around the vagina, on the cervix, or around the anus.
HPV is so common that about 79 million people in the United States currently have some form of it, while another 14 million Americans become newly infected each year. It’s safe to say, then, that if you’re sexually active, you carry some amount of risk for developing genital warts.
Before you let those statistics alarm you, however, it’s important to note that 9 in 10 people who get the type of HPV that causes genital warts never develop symptoms because their immune systems fight off the infection (a process that can take months or even years).
People who are most at risk of developing genital warts are those with poor immune system function. Smokers also have a greater risk of developing warts, but researchers aren’t sure exactly why.
When warts do appear, it may be weeks or even months after sexual contact with an infected person. They usually can be diagnosed with a simple visual examination. Left untreated genital warts can stay the same, grow, or simply go away on their own. Treatment has major benefits, however, as removing warts can reduce the risk of spreading the virus and relieve pain and or itchiness. It can also help ease your mind if you’re concerned that you might have a cancerous growth.
You can’t use over-the-counter wart medications for genital warts. Instead, your gynecologist can prescribe a topical cream or apply a chemical treatment specifically designed to destroy genital wart tissue. Other treatment options include:
Because removing warts doesn’t cure the virus that caused them, it’s still possible to infect someone else after successful treatment.
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