Genital Warts

Dear Dr. B: Can you please write a column on genital warts?

Answer: Sure, why not? This is the most common sexually transmitted disease. So let’s talk about it.

Genital warts are also called condylomata acuminate or venereal warts. It is estimated that one per cent of adults who are sexually active have warts in the genital or anal area. The warts are benign and are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). There are at least 60 types of HPV. Genotypes six and 11 are found in over 90 per cent of cases of genital warts and genotypes 16 and 18 cause cervical cancer.

The virus is transferred from person to person or from contact with something someone has touched. In women, genital warts can grow on the outside or inside of the vagina, on the cervix, in the urethra or around the anus. In men, warts can grow on the tip or shaft of the penis, on the scrotum, in the urethra or around the anus.

How do I get genital warts?

Most, but not all, genital warts are sexually transmitted. Generally speaking warts are more common amongst people whose immune system is poor. But most people who get warts are healthy and well. We are all exposed to wart virus but nobody knows why certain part of our body accepts wart virus at a certain time. Therefore, prevention becomes difficult except in cases of genital warts where safe sex practice helps.

How do I know I have genital warts?

Most people with genital warts have no symptoms. By the time a person is infected and by the time the warts appear may be many months or years. The good news is most of those who get infected never develop warts.

The warts are soft fleshy lumps on or near sex organs or anus. Some people have itching or burning. Warts may be hidden in the vagina or anus.

What are the implications of the disease for patients?

The lesions are benign but they do cause psychosocial distress and may affect relationships as the warts are disfiguring and can be transmitted sexually. Practicing safe sex is important. It is advisable to use barrier protection with new sexual partners. Condoms can reduce the risk of getting genital warts but warts can spread from areas not covered by a condom. Patients who are in stable relationship may not need barrier protection because the partner is already exposed to infection by the time patient sees a doctor.

How do we manage warts?

Management of warts can be quite frustrating for patients and doctors. No specific treatment is appropriate for all patients and a person will need more than one treatment to clear the warts.

Most treatment plans will achieve clearance of virus within one to six months. In 20-30 per cent of patients new warts will occur over months or even years. Patients can treat themselves with podophyllotoxin (0.5 per cent solution or 0.15 per cent cream) and imiquimod (5 per cent cream). Imiquimod is expensive and podophyllotoxin takes longer to cure the condition.

Physicians can treat warts in the office by using trichloroacetic acid or by physical removal using cryosurgery (liquid nitrogen), electrosurgery and excision or laser treatment. In my surgical practice I use electrosurgery and/or excision.

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