Genital Warts - What are They and Can they Be Cured?

Genital warts are one of the most common manifestations of HPV, which currently is the most common sexually transmitted infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the US Government 1. The infection gets its name from the virus that causes it, the Human Papillomavirus which is actually a collection of several viruses that causes warts on the hands, feet or genitals.  According to experts, at least half of people who are sexually active contract the HPV virus at some point in their lives. As yet there is no cure for the infection and treatment mainly consists of alleviating the symptoms.

What are genital warts?

Genital warts are flesh-colored or gray growths found in the genital area and anal region in both men and women. These may be flat or raised, ranging from small to large and can also look life soft, moist, pink or flesh-colored swellings. Usually these warts do not hurt. Warts can appear within weeks or months after sexual contact with an infected partner—even if the infected partner has no signs of genital warts. If left untreated, genital warts might go away on their own or remain unchanged. Sometimes though they increase in size or number but are not cancerous. Some genital warts are so tiny that they can only be detected with a colposcopic exam of the cervix and vagina or a pap smear.

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How can you get genital warts?

Genital warts are transmitted by genital contact from an infected partner. This may be sexual in nature like most often during vaginal, anal but also during oral sex. However other forms of intimate contact involving the genitals but not necessarily sexual activity can also pass the infection from the infected to the healthy partner. The infection causing genital warts can be contracted by both heterosexual and same-sex partners. Sometime a person can be infected with HPV and yet display no visible symptoms like genital warts. In such cases, the person can still infect a partner who might come up with genital warts. This is because of the highly contagious nature of the HPV infection, which is one of the prime causes of genital warts. What happens during transmission of HPV infection is that the virus is able to penetrate the skin and mucosal surfaces through microscopic abrasions in the genital area, which occur during sexual activity. Once cells are invaded by HPV, a latency period of months to years may occur, during which there is no evidence of infection. But in the meantime, HPV causes normal cells on infected skin to turn abnormal. Most of the time, one cannot see or feel these cell changes which is why many cases of HPV infection remains asymptomatic. In most cases, the body fights off HPV naturally and the infected cells then go back to normal. But in cases when the body does not fight off HPV, HPV can cause visible changes in the form of genital warts or even cancer. Warts can appear within weeks or months after getting HPV.

Where can they appear?

As is evident from the term, genital warts appear on the genital regions of men and women but they can also appear in and around the anal regions. In men, genital warts appear on the penis, groin area, and on or in the anus. In women these usually appear as in and around the vulva, vagina and anus.

What can they signify?

Genital warts are caused by the HPV virus. However there are around 100 strains of HPV viruses and some of them can also lead to cancerous growth. About 90% of genital warts are caused by two specific types of the virus, the HPV-6 and HPV -11, and these HPV types are considered "low risk," meaning they have a low cancer-causing potential. However other types like the HPV-16, 18, 31 and 45 have been associated with various types of cancers. Among these, HPV-16 is responsible for around 50% of cases of cervical cancer in women. Thus while genital warts do not lead to cancers, some HPV infections can lead to penile and anal cancers in men as well as cervical cancers or cancers of the vulva, vagina and anus in women.

Are they curable?

As yet there is no complete cure for HPV virus which causes genital warts. This means that no medicine can entirely remove the HPV virus from the body but there are treatments for the disease that HPV can lead to, including genital warts.
Sometimes a patient or healthcare provider may choose not to treat the warts but wait to see if they will disappear on their own.  However if the patient chooses to go for medical treatment, he/she could opt from one of the following procedures for removal of warts:

  1. Cryotherapy - this technique freezes the wart using liquid nitrogen and is usually recommended as the first-line treatment for genital warts.
  2. Laser therapy -  this technique, the laser physically destroys the HPV-induced lesion and is usually suggested for recurrent or extensive genital warts.
  3. Electrodesiccation - this technique uses an electric current to destroy the warts. It can be done in the office with local anesthesia.

Other lines of treatment for genital warts include creams or ointments for topical application like podophyllum resin, podofilox, trichloroacetic acid or bichloracetic acid, 5-fluorouracil or imiquimod. Interferon alpha-n3 is an injection used for warts that do not respond to other therapies.

Along with medical intervention, the infected person needs to follow certain self-care steps like:

  1. Preventing trauma to the area affected by genital warts as it can lead to bleeding
  2. Avoiding touching, picking or squeezing the warts
  3. Preventing the transmission of infection to others, like sexual partners

Can genital warts be life threatening?

Genital warts on their own are not life threatening. The CDC website mentions that they do not turn into cancers. However certain strains of HPV - the virus that causes genital warts – might lead to cancers. Another danger that newborns of mothers who have genital warts may in turn become infected during passage through an infected birth canal. HPV can cause a very serious condition in children called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP).  The papillomas or warts appear and spread quickly, sometimes dangerously blocking the child's airway.

Food and diet

There are no specific foods that will definitely prevent or cure genital warts. However having a diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, healthy proteins and whole grains is helpful in building up a strong immune system which might offer some aid to the body in healing the warts on its own. Also one can try and eliminate suspected food allergens, such as dairy, wheat, soy, corn, preservatives and chemical food additives which might further irritate and inflame the skin.

In the end the best protection lies in practicing safe sex and taking all precautions to avoid sexually transmitted infections.