They’re treatable — and totally common.
You’re showering one day when you feel something unusual down there — a bump or cluster of bumps in the vaginal or anal area. The bumps aren’t itchy or inflamed; they’re firm and painless, flesh-colored rather than red. While only a doctor can diagnose you for sure, the bumps could be genital warts, a common effect of the human papillomavirus.
Where do genital warts come from?
Human papilloma virus (HPV) isn’t just one virus. It’s a big umbrella term that encompasses at least 110 different strains, and they’re all transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. The majority of HPV strains cause no symptoms at all — most people get infected with one at some point and don’t even realize. Other strains cause warts on the hands and feet, or raise the risk of more serious health issues down the line (more on that in a minute).
Two strains — HPV-6 and HPV-11— cause 90 percent of genital warts. Those strains are generally passed through sex or hooking up, and they’re super common. About a quarter of sexually active people develop genital warts at least once in their lives.
What do the warts look like?
To recap: genital warts are small, firm, flesh-color bumps that occur in or around the vagina or anus. Some people develop just one bump; others get more.
Unlike an ingrown hair, a mosquito bite, a pimple, or anything else you might confuse them with, genital warts don’t itch, look red or feel irritated (unless they’re picked or scratched, so it’s best to avoid that).
Also good to know: Warts don’t pop up immediately after sex. If you’ve caught a strain of HPV that causes warts, the virus generally stays quiet in the body until producing the lesions 2 to 12 months later.
Your gyno can probably diagnose genital warts with a basic visual exam. Some docs perform a biopsy, as well, just to rule out other issues. If you think you might have genital warts, it’s smart to get checked out so you know exactly what’s happening down there.
Should I stop hooking up?
Here’s the frustrating thing about HPV: When warts are present, the virus is definitely active (and therefore contagious). But people can carry HPV — and pass it on to sexual partners — for various lengths of time even after warts go away.
Dr. Handsfield’s advice: If warts are visible, consider taking a break from sexual activity. Apart from the known risk of giving HPV to your partner, friction from hooking up could irritate the area and delay your healing.
If no warts are visible but you’ve had one or more in the past six months, be sure to use condoms and/or dental dams during all sexual contact (oral and genital) because HPV still might be hanging around. And give your partner a heads up: While condoms and dams can sharply lower the risk of infecting another person, they aren’t a guarantee. Some partners prefer to abstain from sex during this time.
If the warts clear up (whether on their own or through treatment) and don’t come back for at least six months, Dr. Handsfield says it’s generally safe to assume your HPV infection has cleared. In that case, there’s no medical reason to tell future partners about your history.
How can I get rid of them?
First you should know that lots of people decide to leave genital warts alone. In many cases, the immune system clears the warts (and the underlying viral infection) within a few months. On the other hand, if warts aren’t going away, or are increasing in number, or if you’re just bothered by them, there are few treatment options you can explore with your doc.
In a doctor’s office: Warts can be cauterized, which is the medical term for burning off the tissue. That type of treatment comes in two forms: Electrocautery, which uses heat from a metal probe, and laser cautery. Warts can be frozen off, too. Despite the scary descriptions, these methods usually cause minimal pain and take about 30 minutes or so. A soft scab will form over the treated area and fall off, leaving behind smooth skin.
At home: Prescription topical medications — meaning drugs applied directly to the skin — are another option. These include Condylox, Veregen and Aldara. Depending on which you use, you apply medicine one to three times a week until the warts go away. (Caution: Never attempt to treat genital warts with over-the-counter wart treatments from the drugstore. Those products are formulated for other areas of the body and are not safe to use in the genital area.)
Each of these methods has around a 70 percent success rate, so if one doesn’t work for you — or warts quickly return — a different treatment might do the trick.
In rare cases, genital warts can migrate to other areas of the body. So avoid touching the warts while you’re healing. If you do touch them (say, to apply medicine), wash your hands promptly afterward.
Is too late to get the HPV vaccine?
Even if you’ve already had an HPV infection that resulted in genital warts, you could still benefit from getting the HPV vaccine.
That’s because the current vaccine actually protects against nine strains of HPV, not just HPV-6 and HPV-11. It fends off other seven strains known to cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, throat and more — all serious conditions you really want to avoid.
The vaccine works in teens and young adults until roughly age 26 and requires three doses over six months. Along with regular Pap smears from your gyno, it’s an easy way to safeguard your health. Definitely worth discussing with your doctor.