HPV (human papillomavirus) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world. It can be transmitted through vaginal, anal, or oral sex, or skin-to-skin genital contact.
Anyone who is sexually active is at risk of contracting HPV. Other risk factors include: smoking, a weakened immune system, and being under age 30. The ages of 17-33 are the peak prevalence of genital warts.
“HPV is extremely common, and because it’s usually asymptomatic, it’s frequently impossible to know when you got the virus or who gave it to you,” said Julie, regional support clinician at Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest. “Some patients present with genital warts about 3 months after an HPV exposure.”
There are more than 200 types of HPV, and at least 75 percent of sexually active adults in the U.S. have been infected with HPV at some point.
Most people’s immune systems fight off HPV without treatment. Sometimes, a person will contract a type of HPV that causes genital warts.
A wart can appear anywhere around or inside the genitals or anus. Note that a wart you get on your hand cannot be transferred to the genitals (these are different types of warts — though treatment for them may be similar).
It is not required for a wart to be present for HPV to be transmitted — but the warts themselves are very infectious. Wearing condoms can help lower the risk of contracting genital warts, but does not eliminate it completely because a condom doesn’t cover the entire genital area.
The type of HPV that causes genital warts does not cause cancer, and genital warts rarely become cancerous. However, a person with genital warts could potentially have another strain of HPV at the same time — which is one reason it’s important to get regular Pap tests to screen for cervical cancer (also caused by HPV).
There are 3 ways that genital warts are treated: with a topical cream, trichloroacetic acid, or cryotherapy.
Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest generally uses cryotherapy to treat genital warts because it’s considered to be a very effective treatment.
Cryotherapy means to freeze off the warts with liquid nitrogen. Short bursts of cold freeze the wart; the wart goes from a white appearance back to its normal skin color and then heals from the inside out.
Topical cream is a slower treatment, but can be applied by the person themselves in the privacy of their home, for 3 nights a week. Cryotherapy is much faster and can be done the same day that a person comes into a Planned Parenthood health center. The pulses of cold hurt a little bit, but are highly effective.
“I think it’s an easy procedure for our patients,” said Julie. “It takes just a minute to prepare for, and is tolerated very well.”
Sometimes, just one treatment is enough. For complex cases, more treatments will probably be required.
Once treated, a wart may eventually come back, as HPV is a lifelong virus. However, 70-80% of people who have had a genital wart treatment will not have a recurrence.
“We recommend disclosure with your partners, in the form of ‘I was treated for genital warts, and so I have the HPV virus,’” said Julie. “If your partner has been sexually-active in their past, there is a chance they were already exposed to HPV and there is no way to know (unless they had prior genital warts or an abnormal Pap smear). It sometimes can be a difficult discussion.”
The stronger your immune system, the less likely you are to have a recurrence of genital warts. It’s especially important to stop smoking.
“Stopping smoking is one important thing you can do to minimize the chance of recurrence,” Julie said. “Also: trying to stay healthy, using condoms, and reducing your stress levels.”
If you think you may have a genital wart, or if you have any other concerns or questions, make an appointment with us at Planned Parenthood.
“Genital warts are very common,” Julie said. “We see them all the time, and we’re happy to treat them, to answer your questions, and to help educate the public about HPV.”