What is Genital Warts - HPV?

By  Youth Projects     |    Updated: 25th April, 2017    |    6 min read

Hu-man Pap-ah-low-ma (virus)

Also known as Genital Warts and the Wart Virus. Genital warts are an extremely common STI (Sexually transmistted infections) caused by a virus (Human Papilloma Virus or HPV) that infects the skin and mucous membranes.

More than 100 types of HPV have been identified, including types that affect the skin of the genital and anal areas of both men and women and types that affect the cervix (womb).

Approximately 4 out of 5 people will have HPV at some stage in their life and in many cases not know it, partly because the virus can eventually disappear by itself. The HPV that is sexually transmitted affects the cervix and can be detected when a woman has a Pap test.

However, many infections of HPV go undetected. Infection with the skin types of HPV is the cause of genital warts. Whilst warts in the genital area are not dangerous they are the most common sexual health problem.

IMPORTANT NOTE: People who are HIV positive are at greater risk of getting genital warts. For this reason, women with HIV are recommended to have more frequent Pap Tests and men with HIV are recommended to be screened for the type of anal cancer that is associated with wart infections.

How do you get genital warts?

HPV is passed from an infected person to a non-infected person by direct skin to skin contact during vaginal or anal sex. The virus is rarely passed on during oral sex.

The person who transmits the virus may not necessarily have visible warts and may not even know they have the virus. In fact, the virus can be present for weeks to months before the warts first appear. This means that if you find out you have genital warts; your current partner may not necessarily be the person who gave it to you.

You could have been infected months before even meeting them. It is also possible, though very rare, for a pregnant woman to pass HPV onto her baby during birth.

What are the signs and symptoms of genital warts?

Most people with HPV don’t have any signs or symptoms. But certain types of HPV will cause genital warts. Genital warts come in many different shapes and sizes, in small bumps or groups of bumps. They can be very difficult to see, only 2 – 3 mm in diameter, or very obvious and easily seen by yourself or your partner(s). Warts can have different types of surfaces – flat, rough or raised and are sometimes bumpy and bunched in shape, looking a bit like a cauliflower.

In men, they can be found on the penis, the scrotum, the upper thigh and around the anus.

In women, they can be found in the cervix as well as on the vulva, around the vagina opening, the anus and the perineum (the area in between the anus and vagina).

What are the long term health problems of HPV?

HPV can also cause abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix and if left untreated can develop into cervical cancer. Often there are no signs or symptoms of cervical cancer; this is why it is so important for women to get regular pap tests.

How do you prevent getting genital warts or HPV?

Regular pap tests and sexual health checks are important in both the early detection of HPV and the prevention of spreading genital warts. The use of condoms and dental dams can help to prevent getting genital warts or HPV but is not 100% guaranteed because they don’t always cover the areas of skin that are infected. There is evidence, however, that the risk of cervical cancer is much less if condoms are used.

The HPV Vaccine

The good news for young people in Australia is that we now have a vaccine for the prevention of HPV associated cervical cancer. Check if you are eligible for a free vaccine. It is very safe and effective at preventing HPV infections and will also help prevent genital warts. The vaccine is given by three injections over 6 months and is available at schools, medical clinics, and custody centres.

It’s important that women still have regular Pap Tests even if they have had the vaccine.It does not protect against every type of HPV that can lead to cervical cancer and it does not protect you against any HPV types you may have already been exposed to before getting vaccinated, but it is still a great way to protect yourself.

And it’s important that women still have regular Pap Tests even if they have the vaccine because Pap Tests detect early changes in the cells of the cervix. These changes can lead on to cancer if not picked up early by a Pap smear.

How do you find out if you have genital warts or HPV?

There are usually no special tests done for genital warts and the doctor can usually tell from the appearance of the lump/bump. It is also possible that you think you have warts and in fact the lumps are not. Sometimes simple skin cysts can appear to be warts.

How do you get treated for warts?

The sooner you get any lumps or bumps that you think might be warts checked by a doctor or sexual health nurse the sooner you can have the correct diagnosis made and start the right treatment. Warts can be easily treated however treatment can take a long time, particularly with larger warts. Sometimes treatment may need to be repeated and sometimes the warts will disappear without any treatment at all.

Types of treatment for genital warts include:

  • Creams that kill the virus or prevent it from multiplying (eg, Podophyllin).
  • Creams that stimulate the body’s immune system to get rid of the virus (eg, Imiquinod).
  • Laser surgery.
  • Freezing them off (with liquid nitrogen).
  • Burning them off (this is called cautery).

It is important that treatment is given under the supervision or direction of your doctor or sexual health nurse to make sure you are given the most suitable option for you.

Also check the related topics:  

Types of STI’s Sex & Sexual Health

Factsheet provided by Youth Projects


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