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Genital warts — the name of this common sexually transmitted disease basically speaks for itself. Caused by certain types of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), genital warts are raised bumps on the skin around the genitals.
Get infected with a strain of HPV that can lead to genital warts, and you may get warts almost immediately. Or, warts could turn up months or even years later. You may have a few warts, or you may have lots. They may be small or large, and they may come in clusters or on their own. The penis, scrotum, vulva, vagina, cervix and anus can all be affected, and it is even possible to get genital warts in your mouth or throat (that's pretty rare though).
Like all sexually transmitted diseases, genital warts can be transmitted during unprotected sexual intercourse. There's a catch, though: you can still get genital parts if you and your sex partner use condoms. There will be skin to skin contact regardless of condom use, after all, and the parts that touch could just have genital warts. Even scarier, you can get genital warts even if your partner doesn't have visible warts. Being a carrier of the “right” strain of HPV — usually type 6 or 11 — is enough.
Preventing Genital Warts
As with all sexually transmitted diseases, total abstinence is the only completely secure way to avoid being infected with a strain of HPV that causes genital warts. You are probably not going to make that decision, so it is good to know that there are many other things you can also do to minimize your risk of ending up with this nasty STD.
Being monogamous and only having sex with one person, who also doesn't have any other partners, is your best bet if you want to avoid genital warts and other sexually transmitted diseases. If you are in a new relationship, both get tested for STDs before having sex without a condom. Should genital warts still turn up at some point, don't automatically assume that your partner has been unfaithful — genital warts can appear months or even years after infection, so you or your partner may have picked a stain of HPV up in a previous relationship without ever knowing it.
Some people will, of course, end up taking some risks and decide to have sex with multiple partners. Those who do this should always use condoms, and that will reduce the risk of contracting most sexually transmitted diseases greatly. It doesn't sound very romantic, but to lessen the chance that you'll get genital warts, you should also visually inspect your new partner for bumps around the genitals. This enables you to avoid having sex with someone who has visible warts, but it doesn't keep you safe from someone who was infected with HPV but has no warts.
Finally, it's good to inspect your own genitals regularly to see if you are showing any signs of genital warts if you think you could possibly be at risk. Every sexually active person should also be tested for other STDs on a regular basis. If you are not sure how often you should get STD testing, discuss it with your sexual health clinic, your OBGYN, or your family doctor.
Genital Warts — The Diagnosis
“HPV”, or Human Papilloma Virus, is actually a collection of more than 150 different but related viruses. In the United States, HPVs are the most common type of sexually transmitted disease. They're divided into two different groups: high-risk and low-risk HPVs.
High-risk HPVs can cause cancer. The good news is that the types that cause genital warts are the low-risk ones. As much as 90 percent of all genital warts are caused by HPV types 6 and 11. If you think you have genital warts, you don't have to worry that the type of HPV that caused the warts is also going to give you cancer. However, it is not unusual for people to have several different HPV infections at the same time. Since high-risk strains of HPV can cause cancer, it is important to get a PAP smear if you have genital warts too, just in cause you have more than one type of HPV.
Genital warts are diagnosed through a physical examination. A biopsy is possible but rarely performed, because a visual inspection is usually more than enough to confirm the presence of genital warts.
Once you are diagnosed with genital warts, you will be able to get treatment to attempt to get rid of the warts. There is another important reason to see your healthcare provider if you have what you think are genital warts anywhere on or near your genitals, though — you may have another disease instead, like hemorrhoids, syphilis, or even skin cancer.