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Genital warts are skin growths in and around the genital area and anus. They are caused by certain types of the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. However, it is important to note that there are more than 100 types of HPV and different types of HPV produce warts on different parts of the body. For example, plantar warts can develop on the feet and other types of HPV cause hand warts. Meanwhile, high-risk types of HPV can lead to certain cancers while other types of HPV produce genital warts. Therefore, understanding genital warts and their origins is important for one’s own health and in order to prevent confusion, as well as the possible overreaction to the presence of warts.
In most cases, genital warts are caused by one of two types of HPV–either type 6 or 11. These warts can appear in the genital area or mouth. The areas that could be affected by these warts include the vagina, cervix, vulva, anus, penis, rectum, and/or scrotum. They are transmitted via person-to-person and skin-to-skin contact, usually during sex interaction. This includes transmission via oral sex. These warts are very common. In fact, it is estimated that between 500,000 to 1 million people contract genital warts annually.
Some of the common symptoms of genital warts include flesh-colored, tender bumps on the skin that may look similar to cauliflower. It is characteristic of these warts to grow in multiple locations and they may cluster in large masses. Typically, these warts are painless but can be itchy. Moreover, it is not uncommon for infected individuals to see or feel the presence of these warts in their vagina, on their penis, or other genital areas. Furthermore, if someone engages in oral sex with an infected individual, it is also possible to develop them in the mouth, on the lips, tongue, or even in the throat.
One essential element to understanding genital warts is recognizing they have diverse incubation periods. They can develop within 6 weeks to 6 months after exposure. In some cases, it may even take longer. However, it is important to note that they often grow faster during pregnancy or in people with compromised immune systems. Some circumstances and/or chronic conditions that could result in accelerated development of genital warts include Hodgkin’s disease and other forms of cancer, aplastic anemia, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, anti-rejection drugs following an organ transplant, and/or chemotherapy or radiation treatments.
Many people have misconceptions about genital warts. While they can be uncomfortable and/or unpleasant, they are neither life-threatening nor dangerous. However, these warts can cause open sores and/or bleeding, which can increase a person’s risk of secondary infection and even HIV exposure. Another myth about these warts is that they are linked to cancer. While it is true that HPV can cause cancer and it is also the cause of genital warts, there are different types of HPV that cause cancer and these are not the same types of HPV that are responsible for the development of genital warts.
Nonetheless, since a person can have more than one type of HPV infection simultaneously or at different intervals, it is important to be tested in order to rule out the high-risk types of HPV infection, which often result in cancer. This is especially true for women and/or expectant mothers. In many cases, genital warts will need to be removed before delivery in order to avoid a variety of complications for the mother and child.
There are many misconceptions about genital warts and human papillomavirus (HPV), which is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. It is important to note that there are more than 100 types of HPV and different types of HPV produce warts on different parts of the body. For instance, high-risk types of HPV can lead to certain cancers while other types of HPV produce genital warts. Some health effects caused by HPV can be prevented via vaccines. Therefore, understanding genital warts and their origins is important for one’s own health and to be aware of when medical consultation may be required.
Written and Edited by Leigh Haugh
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention–Genital HPV Infection – Fact Sheet
Planned Parenthood–Genital Warts