Genital warts are small fleshy growths of skin on or near the sexual organs that are caused by the human papillomavirus and are usually spread by sexual contact.
Genital warts may be dome-shaped or nearly flat, but most commonly they grow on stalks in clumps that look like small heads of cauliflower. Warts of this shape are called condylomata acuminata (KON-dil-o-MATa AH-koo-min-NAHT-a). Genital warts are highly contagious * , and sexually active individuals have approximately a 60 percent chance of getting them after a single sexual contact with an infected person. Genital warts usually cause no pain, but they can be bothersome or uncomfortable depending on their location.
The human papillomavirus (pap-i-LO-ma vi-rus) (HPV) is common and has many subtypes. Genital warts usually are caused by two subtypes, HPV-6 or HPV-11. Many people may become infected with HPV at some point during their lives but not know it because they do not have the visible warts. Among sexually active people in the United States, about 1 percent (1.4 million people) have genital warts, and another 14 percent (19 million) have HPV infection without warts.
Other kinds of HPV (mainly HPV-16 or HPV-18) can cause cancer of the cervix * , part of the female reproductive tract. Even though visible genital warts usually do not contain cancer-causing forms of the virus, women who have warts should be sure to get the yearly test for cervical cancer, called the Pap smear * , which is recommended for all women.
Genital warts can be removed in a number of ways: by surgery, laser surgery * treatment, freezing (cryotherapy), or repeated treatment with chemicals that the doctor paints directly on the warts. They often recur after being removed. If untreated, they may grow, remain the same, or disappear on their own.
The surest protection is sexual abstinence, that is, not having sex at all. Those who have sex with multiple partners have a higher chance of getting infected (although all it takes is having sex with one partner with an HPV infection to become infected) and should always use condoms. Condoms offer protection against infection, although the exact degree of that protection is not known. Medical professionals do not know whether the removal of visible genital warts makes a person's infection less contagious. Even after removal, a person's chance of getting warts again is almost 50 percent.
See also Cervical Cancer • Human Papillomavirus (HPV) • Pregnancy • Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs): Overview • Warts
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American Social Health Association's National HPV and Cervical Cancer Prevention Resource Center. PO Box 13827, Research Triangle Park, NC 27709. Telephone: 919-361-8400. Website: http://www.ashastd.org (accessed October 21, 2015).
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 1600 Clifton Rd., Atlanta, GA 30333. Toll-free: 800-232-4636. Website: http://www.cdc.gov (accessed October 21, 2015).
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Office of Communications and Public Liaison, 6610 Rockledge Dr., MSC 6612, Bethesda, MD 20892-6612. Toll-free: 866-284-4107. Website: http://www.niaid.nih.gov (accessed October 21, 2015).
* contagious (kon-TAY-jus) means transmittable from one person to another, usually referring to an infection.
* cervix (SIR-viks) is the lower, narrow end of the uterus that opens into the vagina.
* Pap smear is a common diagnostic test used to look for cancerous cells in the tissue of the cervix.
* laser surgery uses a very narrow and intense beam of light that can destroy body tissue.
* vaccination (vak-sih-NAY-shun), also called immunization, is giving, usually by an injection, a preparation of killed or weakened germs, or a part of a germ or product it produces, to prevent or lessen the severity of the disease caused by that germ.
* biopsy (BI-op-see) is a test in which a small sample of skin or other body tissue is removed and examined for signs of disease.