Genital Warts

Genital warts, which are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), are one of the most common STDs. Some people who have been infected with HPV never get genital warts, but they can still spread the infection.

Typically, the warts first appear 1 to 6 months after exposure to the virus. The warts favor warm, moist places. In men this usually means the tip or the shaft of the penis, including beneath the foreskin in an uncircumcised male. Some men, particularly those who engage in anal sex, may develop warts inside the rectum or around the anus.

As with other kinds of warts elsewhere on the body, genital warts start small and soft and become hard and rough-surfaced, often developing stalks. Multiple warts often grow in the same area, creating a cauliflowerlike effect. The growth is rapid, especially in men with weakened immune systems—for example, men who have AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).

The good news is that the warts usually disappear on their own after a few months. The bad news is that they tend to return, even if they have been removed. Genital warts can be treated (but not cured) with prescription creams or gels such as imiquimod or podofilox. These medications are applied directly to the affected area. The warts also can be removed with surgery, which is done using a local anesthetic, cryotherapy (freezing), or a laser. Warts in the urethra may be treated with anticancer drugs or removed surgically. Some doctors recommend removal more often than others. All doctors, however, will want to remove and examine a wart that is unusual in appearance or that lasts an unusually long time, to make sure it is not cancerous.

If you develop warts or have been exposed to sexually transmitted HPV, you must notify your sex partners so they can be examined and, if necessary, treated. (Certain types of genital warts in women are associated with cervical cancer.)

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