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Genital Warts: Treatment and Prevention

by 
author image Dr. Mary D. Daley
Based in Houston, Texas, Dr. Mary D. Daley has been writing and editing health and medicine articles for more than 20 years. Daley holds an MD degree, as well as an MSc in biomedical writing. She is also a board-certified anesthesiologist in the United States and Canada.
Genital Warts: Treatment and Prevention
Unprotected sex can lead to the transmission of HPV, which may cause genital warts. Photo Credit: Caiaimage/Trevor Adeline/Caiaimage/GettyImages

If you have genital warts, you’re not alone. Genital warts are the most common sexually transmitted disease in the world, according to a 2018 article published in Minerva Chirurgica.

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While genital warts — scientifically known as condylomata acuminata, or venereal warts — may be alarming and can cause discomfort or itching, they’re generally not serious and may even go away on their own.

But you have options. Several treatments can help remove your genital warts: Some can be done at home, but others are applied by a doctor. And there are also prevention strategies to help you avoid getting genital warts and passing them on to others.

Cause of Genital Warts

Genital warts are caused by infection with a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is actually a group of more than 200 viruses, about 40 of which cause infections in the genital area.

Two types of HPV — types 6 and 11 — are responsible for 90 percent of genital warts, according to the National Cancer Institute. And they only very rarely lead to cancer.

Other types of HPV — primarily types 16 and 18 — can cause cancer, especially in the genital or anal area and in the mouth or throat. The viruses producing genital warts are often referred to as low-risk HPVs, whereas the cancer-causing viruses are called high-risk HPVs.

Read more: 9 Things You Should’ve Learned in Sex Ed

If you see something weird on your genitals, talk to your doctor about your concerns.
If you see something weird on your genitals, talk to your doctor about your concerns. Photo Credit: fstop123/E+/GettyImages

Treatment for Genital Warts

About 30 percent of genital warts will disappear on their own within four months, according to a 2012 article in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. But treatment is often recommended, as it removes warts more quickly and reduces the chances of transferring the wart-causing virus to someone else.

While treatments will get rid of the wart, none will eliminate all of the virus from the body, so genital warts commonly reappear after treatment, usually within three months.

But treatment isn’t a one-size-fits-all fix. As noted in the most recent guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), no single treatment is effective for every person. The choice of treatment ultimately depends on numerous factors, such as the size, location and number of warts.

Combinations of treatments are sometimes used, but the effectiveness and side effects of combinations have not been well studied. So it’s always best to consult your physician.

Read more: Visit LIVESTRONG.COM’s STD Condition Center

At-Home Treatments for Genital Warts

When genital warts are located on the skin’s surface — not within the vagina, urethra or anal canal — at-home treatments may be recommended. These are topical treatments that are applied directly to the wart and require a prescription.

  • Podofilox (Condylox) is available as
    a liquid applied with a cotton swab or as a gel applied with a
    finger.
  • Imiquimod (Aldara) is a cream that’s applied daily and washed off six to
    10 hours later. 
  • Sinecatechin (Veregen) ointment is made from green-tea extract and is applied three times a day. 

It’s important to note that all of these treatments can cause inflammation at the application site, and imiquimod and sinecatechin may weaken condoms and diaphragms.

Doctor-Applied Genital Wart Treatments

Several treatments require application by a doctor, as explained in the CDC guidelines.

1. Podophyllin resin is a thick liquid placed on genital warts located on the skin. It should be washed off after one to four hours to reduce irritation in the area. Treatments are repeated once a week if needed. When applied in large amounts or to open sores, podophyllin may be absorbed into the bloodstream and produce harmful side effects, including nerve damage.

2. Trichloroacetic acid and bichloroacetic acid are other liquid therapies that may be applied to genital warts, but they often cause irritation and pain. When severe, the pain may be treated by applying an alkaline substance, such as sodium bicarbonate. Treatment is repeated weekly if necessary. The CDC guidelines recommend these therapies for warts within the vagina.

3. Cryotherapy involves freezing the wart using liquid nitrogen or nitrous oxide. It’s generally effective, but it usually requires repeat treatments every one to two weeks and commonly causes pain at the application site.

4. Surgery may be necessary for large warts that haven’t responded to other treatments. It also allows the wart to be removed in just one visit, so it’s sometimes used for smaller warts as well.

After local anesthetic is applied to numb the area, the wart is removed by either electrocautery or a surgical incision. With electrocautery, an electrical current produces intense heat that destroys the wart. Laser therapy, which uses a laser beam to destroy tissue, is sometimes used in combination with surgery for large warts, according to the CDC. Laser therapy may also be used alone.

Alternative Treatments for Genital Warts

According to the CDC guidelines, the treatments discussed above are the preferred types of therapy. Other treatments are sometimes used, but there’s less research indicating that they’re effective and they may have more side effects. These include:

Prevention of Genital Warts

The best way to not get genital warts is to avoid direct contact with the virus, which is transferred by sexual intercourse. Transfer can occur during vaginal, anal or oral sex, according to the CDC.

If warts are visible in the genital area, sexual contact should be avoided until the warts are fully treated. This will reduce the likelihood of transferring the virus, but some virus often remains after treatment, so transmission is still possible.

The CDC notes that correctly using a latex condom during sex can provide some protection against getting or transmitting genital warts. But this doesn’t provide complete protection, as the virus can be present in areas not covered by the condom.

In addition, the HPV vaccine called Gardasil reduces the likelihood of developing genital warts. It’s effective against HPV types 6 and 11, as well as the high-risk HPV types 16 and 18.

The CDC currently recommends that all children receive two doses of Gardasil between ages 11 and 12, given six to 12 months apart. Men and women who missed these vaccinations as children should be vaccinated if they’re 27 or younger.

When to Talk to Your Doctor

See your doctor if you notice any growths in the genital or anal area on yourself or your partner. Genital warts usually have a characteristic appearance, so your doctor can generally tell whether you have a wart just by looking it. If your doctor is unsure, part of the growth may be sent to the lab to determine the diagnosis.

If you’re diagnosed with genital warts, your doctor will help choose the best type of treatment. Be sure to tell your doctor if you are, or could be, pregnant. The CDC guidelines note that podofilox, imiquimod, sinecatechin and podophyllin should not be used during pregnancy, as they may be dangerous for your baby.

If you have genital warts, your doctor may ask you and your partner to be tested for other sexually transmitted diseases. Women with genital warts should continue with their regular pap tests for cervical cancer. The CDC guidelines do not recommend that women undergo more frequent pap tests simply because they have genital warts.

What Do YOU Think?

Have you ever contracted genital warts? What treatments did you use? Did you find this information helpful? Let us know in the comments below!

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