Warts and Worries. What To Do?

Photo credit: Jamelah E.

Photo credit: Jamelah E.

If you were recently exposed to genital warts would you know what to do? Do you know what to ask your doctor? What tests and treatments are available? Are genital warts curable?

As part of their weekly Q&A series, the CSPH (the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health) explains what to do if you think you’ve been exposed to genital warts, a common sexually transmitted infection caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is so common, it has been called the “common cold” of STIs in the United States.

According to the CDC, the United States is facing an HPV epidemic, in which 50% of sexually active adults carry some form of HPV without any symptoms. Yet not enough people know what is HPV, what are it’s sympotoms (if any!), and how it can be treated and prevented.

In this post, the CSPH explains that:

  • About one person in 10 will have genital warts at some time in their life.
  • Because genital warts spreads by skin-to-skin contact rather than an exchange of bodily fluids, condoms are not 100% effective at preventing transmission.
  • Unlike many STIs which can be diagnosed with a simple blood test, genital warts are detected primarily through visual inspection. However, not everyone shows symptoms.
  • About two-thirds of people who are exposed to active genital warts will develop them, usually within three to six months after contact.
  • You can reduce the risk of HPV with consistent use of sex dams and condoms, creative outercourse that doesn’t put you in direct contact with genitals (dry humping, vibrator play, etc.), and regular STI testing to keep your status up-to-date.
  • Still confused about testing? Check out our post about when to get tested for STIs.

This post was originally published on the CSPH

BY THE CSPH | theCSPH.org

Image from the CSPH

Image from the CSPH

Each week, The CSPH answers questions asked on our site and through social media outlets like Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook. This week’s question is:

Hi! I just recently found out that I was exposed to genital warts and might have it, though I am currently not showing any symptoms. I have a pap smear coming up at the beginning of August and I plan to bring up my concerns then (while abstaining from sex until then). Do you think that they’ll be able to test me although I don’t have any symptoms, only reasonable concern?

Genital warts is a common sexually transmitted infection caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is spread by skin-to-skin contact rather than an exchange of bodily fluids. About one person in 10 will have genital warts at some time in their life. Unfortunately, this sneaky virus can be passed along even if you use a condom—for example, if your genitals touch during foreplay, or if your partner masturbates before fondling your naughty bits. Condom use is still recommended, as safer sex practices can significantly decrease risk, but it should be remembered that barrier methods are not a genital force field.

While HPV is a family of viruses often linked to cervical cancer, the particular strains that cause genital warts are different and distinct. With more than 100 permutations, the volume and variety of HPV could rival Nicki Minaj’s wig collection. Most genital warts, however, are caused by HPV types 6 and 11, which are lower risk but highly contagious. About two-thirds of people who are exposed to active genital warts will develop them, usually within three to six months after contact.

Thanks to high school health class, some people might associate genital warts with magnified images of mutant cauliflower, but in most cases these warts are inconspicuous, subtle, and benign. They can be flesh-toned or gray, raised or flat, singular or in clusters. For vulva-owners, these growths tend to appear on the vagina or cervix or around the labia majora, anus, or inner thighs. A pelvic exam is often necessary for diagnosis, since warts do not usually cause pain or discharge and can reside internally. Genital warts in penis-owners may surface on the shaft, scrotum, testicles, anus, or general groin area.

Unlike HIV and syphilis which can be diagnosed with a simple blood test, genital warts are detected primarily through visual inspection. No lab results can indicate the presence or absence of HPV 6 or 11 before genital warts appear. Once a skin growth is present, a biopsy may be required for confirmation since smaller warts can be difficult to distinguish from normal genital bumps or ingrown pubic hair.

Although there is an HPV test on the market, it was designed to detect high-risk, pre-cancerous strains of the virus (types 16 and 18) in women over thirty. Similarly, a pap smear would not reveal whether or not someone has genital warts. Due to a lack of effective screening and testing, it is hard to know if you or a potential partner might have this contagious, but harmless, skin condition; an estimated 50% of sexually active adults carry some form of HPV without any symptoms.

Fortunately, the Gardasil vaccine can protect against the HPV strains responsible for 90% of genital warts, in addition to the high-risk types associated with 75% of cervical cancers. No longer restricted to empowered women and girls who engage in radical activities like playing drums, skateboarding, or living in designer lofts, this vaccine is now available to members of all sexes and genders. While there are risks and benefits associated with Gardasil (or any vaccine), the recommended age of inoculation is 11 or 12, or prior to becoming sexually active.

The CDC recommends that vulva-owners ages 13 through 26 get HPV vaccine if they have not received any or all of the three doses when they were younger. Likewise, CDC recommends the vaccine for penis-owners aged 13 through 21 years if they have not been received it already.

If you happen to have genital warts, there are several treatment options available, including podophyllin solution, cryosurgery (freezing), and electrocaudery (burning). You can also wait and give the warts some time to disappear on their own; within three months, 20 to 30 percent of all cases of non-cervical warts usually clear up without medical intervention.

When genital warts are treated, symptoms often resolve within one to nine months. Although the virus is most easily spread when active warts are present, you may still be contagious following treatment or removal, especially during the six months immediately afterwards. If you have been with your current partner since a few weeks before the genital warts appeared, more than likely your partner has already been exposed to the virus and abstaining would not prevent an outbreak. However, before engaging with new partners, it would be important to discuss the risk of viral transmission (in addition to what turns you on!), and to use condoms until everyone is comfortable with the potential consequences.

Unfortunately, there is no way for your doctor to conclusively diagnose you with genital warts unless physical symptoms are present. However, it’s wonderful that you’re being responsible in the meantime by abstaining from sex and initiating dialogue on these important issues. Through consistent use of barrier methods, creative outercourse (dry humping, vibrator play, etc.), open communication, and annual exams with a qualified healthcare provider, you can take several proactive measures to help reduce your risk of genital warts and other STIs, while enjoying safe and sexy pleasure adventures.

Special note: Human papilloma virus (HPV), the underlying agent that causes genital warts, actually has over 100 strands, about forty of which can lead to genital warts. Other strains of HPV can also lead to cell division, which may be responsible for a number of throat, genital, cervical, and anal cancers. According to the CDC, nearly all sexually active adults will get at least one strain of HPV at some point in their life; however, when we state the “one person in ten” statistic, we were referring to having genital warts specifically.

condom ad condoms too loose

csphThe CENTER for SEXUAL PLEASURE and HEALTH (The CSPH) is designed to provide adults with a safe, physical space to learn about sexual pleasure, health, and advocacy issues. Led by highly respected founder and director, Megan Andelloux, The CSPH is a sexuality training and education organization that works to reduce sexual shame, fight misinformation, & advance the sexuality field.