You may be in the shower, getting dressed or getting intimate with your partner when you first discover a cluster of bumps . . . down there. Genital warts, the result of contracting one of over 70 strains of human papillomavirus (HPV), is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that almost a half million people a year contend with and worry about to the point of sometimes avoiding medical care out of misplaced embarrassment.
How Do You Know It’s a Wart?
Genital warts are whitish bumps that often resemble little pieces of cauliflower. On women, they can show up on your vulva, anus and even your cervix, where they can’t be seen. On men, they can show up on your penis, scrotum or anus. While they don’t hurt, they can be itchy and even bleed if located in an area that gets direct sexual contact.
While all warts are a result of HPV, unlike the wart you might find on your hand or foot, genital warts are the result of a specific strain of the virus, which can only be transmitted through sexual contact between mucous membranes. These should not be confused with other lesions (or bumps) that might appear on your genitalia such as skin tags, which are the result of skin folds rubbing together, or genital herpes, which is a more serious viral STD that can cause itchiness, pain and flu-like symptoms.
Can You Avoid Getting Genital Warts?
The vast majority of genital wart cases are the direct result of skin-to-skin contact due to vaginal or anal sex, with the rare instance of transmission via oral sex or even pregnancy (a risk to your new baby). Genital wart outbreaks from HPV may never occur, or they may show up years later. You can even be a carrier of the HPV virus, never show any symptoms at all and still inadvertently pass it along to someone who will.
There are several ways to avoid getting HPV and genital warts, starting with the most obvious: abstinence. If that is not a preferred option, others include:
Get vaccinated. The most effective preventive measure available today is to get an FDA-approved HPV vaccine. Available for men and women up to age 26, vaccines are given in a series of 2-3 shots, though not recommended for everyone. Along with warding off genital warts, these vaccines successfully decrease a woman’s risk of getting cervical cancer.
Use condoms. Condoms provide limited protection against catching several STDs, including genital warts.
Avoid sexual contact during known outbreaks. While most outbreaks will clear up on their own within a couple months, they can last up to two years. As long as warts remain visible, you are considered highly contagious.
Stop smoking. Studies show that smoking increases your chances of HPV, which includes genital warts.
What Treatments Are Available?
If you suspect you have genital warts, what should you do? First, don’t panic. Although embarrassing, they also are extremely common and, most importantly, not life threatening. However, unlike over-the-counter treatments for warts found on other parts of your body, genital warts do require a doctor’s care. Do not attempt to treat them with the same gel or creme you’d find on the grocery shelves. Not only will it NOT help, it could possibly do more damage and hurt!
Depending on the size and duration of the outbreak, there are a number of solutions your doctor can recommend. Although the treatment may remove the wart, it does not eliminate HPV from your system and another outbreak could occur.
Creams/acids: Prescription creams are usually the first line of defense against genital warts, but use caution if pregnant as they come with risks to the baby.
Cryotherapy: Using liquid nitrogen, a doctor can, in essence, freeze the wart off.
Electrodesiccation: Using an electric current, a doctor can destroy the wart.
Laser Surgery: When all else fails, a last alternative is laser surgery.
In short, don’t worry. Those embarrassing little bumps won’t end your love life, just slow it down until your body has time to heal. By visiting your doctor, you can do your part to speed up the process.
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