Genital warts are among the most common types of sexually transmitted diseases. The human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus that causes genital warts, is associated with cervical cancer and other types of genital cancers. The strains of HPV that cause genital warts are highly contagious; they spread through sexual contact with an infected person.
Genital warts may appear as small, individual, flesh-colored bumps or as large clusters like cauliflower. In addition to the bumps, signs and symptoms of may include itching or discomfort in the genital area, bleeding with intercourse, and small swellings in the genital area. Sometimes genital warts are too small to see with the naked eye and cause no symptoms. Treatments for genital warts can relieve symptoms and ease discomfort, but cannot eliminate the underlying virus.
Up to 30 percent of genital warts disappear within four months without any treatment. If warts are causing pain or distress, medications and surgery can bring relief. Chemical treatments can be applied to burn off warts. Creams can boost the ability of the immune system to fight genital warts. Other medications and wart removers destroy genital wart tissue. Some medications for genital warts can be purchased over the counter, some require a prescription, and others must be applied by a medical provider.
Larger warts and warts that don't respond to treatment may require surgical removal. Pregnant women may need to have genital wart removed if they could interfere with pregnancy or delivery. Since medications could be harmful to the baby, surgery is usually the better option. Surgical options include freezing with liquid nitrogen, burning off with an electrical current, cutting off the warts, or using laser treatment.
Because genital warts are so contagious, it is very important to take steps to avoid transmitting the virus. Anyone with genital warts should avoid sexual contact until the warts are adequately treated and should tell recent sexual partners about the genital warts. Trauma to the genital area should be avoided because it could cause bleeding. It's important not to touch, pick, or squeeze genital warts.
Prevention is the best approach to genital warts. About two-thirds of people who have sexual contact with someone who has genital warts develop the conditions themselves. Using a condom during sexual intercourse can significantly reduce the risk of contracting HPV because the virus spreads through skin-to-skin contact. Women should have regular pelvic exams and Pap smears, which help detect signs of HPV infection. A vaccine known as Gardasil protects against some strains of HPV in females who have not yet been exposed to the virus. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the vaccine for girls and women age 9 to 26.
Genital warts are serious and highly contagious; they can interfere with pregnancy and lead to cervical and other types of genital cancer. While treatments for genital warts can relieve symptoms and discomfort, the underlying virus can never be eliminated. For these reasons it is critically important to prevent genital warts. The measures noted above can help save lives.
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