What causes genital warts?
Genital warts are caused by HPV, a sexually transmitted infection that can affect anyone who is sexually active. The warts are caused by two types of HPV, strains HPV6 and HPV11, which have a low prevalence compared to other strains.
You can get genital warts by having unprotected oral or vaginal sex, or oral sex with someone who’s infected. Having unprotected sex is always a risk since people can carry HPV without symptoms, and so they may be unaware that they’re carrying the virus. You can develop symptoms years after you’ve been infected, so it can be hard to pinpoint when and how you got it.
What do genital warts look like?
Genital warts come in various shapes and sizes. They can be flat or raised, flesh-coloured or whitish, and you can have a single one or multiple in the same area. Usually, when you develop a lot of warts close together, they can develop a texture similar to a cauliflower’s surface.
The warts are more likely to appear on the vulva, the shaft and head of the penis, the scrotum, the groin, the anus, and the perineum (the area separating the genitals and the anus). But they can also develop internally in the vagina, the cervix, and the anal canal, which will make them harder to detect. Less commonly, they can appear in the mouth or throat if you’ve had unprotected oral sex with someone with HPV.
Genital warts will usually cause no strong pain. But they may cause some discomfort, mild pain, itching, and bleeding. Itching is the most common sensation associated with genital warts, as bleeding and pain will usually only happen if there’s friction. This can happen when you have sex or wear tight clothes. If you have internal warts you may also feel discomfort and a burning sensation when you go to the toilet.
Can genital warts lead to other problems?
Genital warts can cause some complications. If you have warts on the cervix or inside the vagina, these can cause cervical changes which then leads to cervical cancer. That is one of the reasons why the HPV vaccine is recommended for young adults before they even become sexually active. The HPV vaccine could prevent as many as 100,000 cancers, as it’s estimated that 5% of cancer cases in the world are caused by this virus.
If you’re pregnant, your hormone levels can cause the warts to bleed, get larger and multiply. If that happens, you might need to have a C-section. You can also pass the virus to your baby, which may lead to your child developing warts inside their airways. This is a very rare complication, though.