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Genital Warts (HPV)

What Are They?
Genital warts are warts that are located near or in the genital areas. In a female, that means on or near the vulva (the outside genital area that includes the labia), vagina, cervix, or anus. In a male, that means near or on the penis, scrotum, or anus.

Warts appear as bumps or growths. They can be flat or raised, single or many, small or large. They tend to be whitish or flesh colored. They are not always easy to see with the naked eye, and many times a person with genital warts doesn't know that they are there.

Genital warts are caused by a group of viruses called HPV (short for human papillomavirus). There are more than 100 types of HPV. Some of them cause the regular kind of warts you see on people's hands and feet - these common warts usually are caused by types of viruses that are different from those that cause genital warts.

More than 30 types of HPV cause genital warts. Genital warts can be passed from person to person through intimate sexual contact (vaginal, oral, or anal sex). In some rare cases, genital warts are transmitted from a mother to her baby during childbirth. You cannot catch genital warts from a towel, doorknob, or toilet seat.

HPV infections are common in teens and young adults. As many as 1 in 2 people can have them. The more sexual partners someone has, the more likely it is that the person will get an HPV infection.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms?
Most HPV infections have no signs or symptoms. So someone can be infected and pass the disease on to another person without knowing. However, some people do get visible warts.

People often don't have any symptoms from genital warts - the warts usually do not hurt or itch, which is one reason why people may not know they have them. Doctors can diagnose warts by examining the skin closely (sometimes with a magnifying glass) and using a special solution to make them easier to see. Pap smears and other tests can help diagnose an HPV infection.

Experts believe that when a wart is present, the virus is active and more likely to be contagious. When the wart disappears, the virus is still there but may be less likely to spread.

How Long Until You See the Symptoms?
A person who has been exposed to genital warts may have warts appear any time from several weeks to several months after exposure. Sometimes warts can take even longer to appear; the virus can live in the body for a very long time without causing any symptoms. Because many people who are infected with HPV don't show any symptoms, it's important for anyone who is having sex to get regular medical checkups.

What Can Happen?
Genital warts often go away without treatment. Sometimes, if they are left untreated, they may grow bigger and multiply. Sometimes they can go away on their own - but this doesn't mean people can ignore genital warts. Some types of genital warts are especially worrisome for girls because HPV can cause problems with the cervix (the opening to the uterus that is located at the top of the vagina) that may lead to cervical cancer.

How Are Genital Warts Prevented?
The only surefire way to prevent genital warts is not to have sex. Teens who do have sex can get some protection by properly using a latex condom every time they have any form of sexual intercourse (vaginal, oral, or anal sex). Condoms may not give complete protection because the virus can spread from the areas of the genitals not covered by the condom. Condoms also reduce the risk of other sexually transmitted infections as well as pregnancy.

Right now there is no vaccine available to prevent HPV, although some are being developed.

How Are They Treated?
There is no cure that will get rid of the HPV virus completely. But there are treatments that can reduce the number of warts - or help them go away faster. When the warts disappear, the HPV virus is still there, though it may not spread as easily. If you are having sex, think you may have genital warts, or if you have had a partner who may have genital warts, you need to see your doctor or gynecologist. If the warts are not obviously visible, doctors can detect the presence of HPV in girls through a Pap smear (a test that is performed during a gynecologic exam). Doctors can examine a guy to see if he has warts.

Your doctor will do an examination, make a diagnosis, and then provide treatment, if necessary. There are a number of different treatments. Depending on where the warts are located, how big they are, and how many there are, your doctor can treat them in several ways. Some genital warts can be treated by putting special medications on them. If warts are large, the doctor may carefully "freeze" them off by using a chemical or laser treatment to remove them.

Because HPV lives in the skin, warts can come back. So you may need to visit the doctor again. Anyone with whom you've had sex also should be checked for genital warts.

Not all bumps on a person's genitals are warts. Some can be pimples, some can be other types of infections or growths. An exam by a doctor can help determine what a bump is.

Almost everyone who gets a genital wart gets upset, and it's normal to be worried. Talk to your doctor or nurse about what it means to have HPV and what you can do.

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