See all > Living & wellness
December 17, 2019 • read
Genital warts in women
About one in 100 sexually active adults have genital warts at any given time — that’s one percent of the population. They are so contagious that even with perfect condom use, you can still get them. And while you can treat the warts themselves, the virus that causes them isn’t curable. Genital warts can strike both of the sexes, but when it comes to additional factors like pregnancy and cervical cancer, women have unique concerns. Let’s take a look at everything you need to know about genital warts in women.
Genital warts and cervical cancer
Genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV. There are many different strains of HPV, and most sexually active adults are infected with one or another at some point in their lives. Most strains of the virus don’t cause problems or are cleared by the body within a couple of years with no ill effects. But some can be much more sinister: at least 14 strains of HPV cause cancer.
Thankfully, the HPV vaccine was developed to protect women from the strains of the virus that cause cervical cancer. As an added bonus, it also protects against HPV-6 and HPV-11, which cause 90 percent of genital warts. But you don’t typically have to worry about a genital wart infection turning into cancer — they’re usually caused by different versions of the virus.
How do you get genital warts?
Genital warts in women can show up anywhere that has sexual contact with another person because they are spread through vaginal, anal, and sometimes oral sex. You can also get genital warts from touching the affected area or sharing sex toys. This means that warts can show up on the vulva, vagina, cervix, in and around the anus, and in the groin area. They can also appear on the tongue, lips, or inside the mouth. In rare cases, mothers can transmit them to their children during childbirth.
Symptoms of genital warts in women
You’re most likely to discover that you have a genital wart infection if you’re able to see them. But that doesn’t mean that warts will look the same in everyone. In some people they can show up as cauliflower-like growths, while in others they might appear as smooth bumps. They can also vary in colour — from slightly darker than your skin tone to pink, white, or red. There’s also no predicting their number. While some people might only get a single wart, others may get them in clusters. And their size can range too, from one to two millimetres all the way up to several inches in diameter. In some cases the genital warts might even be too small to notice.
Because of HPV’s link with cervical cancer, symptoms of vaginal warts should always be discussed with a doctor. Especially because warts aren’t always visible; although you might notice odd discharge, itching, or discomfort in the genital area. Symptoms of genital warts in females might also include bleeding during or after intercourse.
Treating genital warts
Genital warts aren’t usually painful, so some women choose not to treat them. The warts will typically go away on their own, but in some cases this can take years. There’s also the possibility that they might multiply or grow if left untreated. This can cause discomfort, especially if they rub or chafe against clothing or other body parts.
For those looking for a faster solution, treatment includes topical creams, cryotherapy (freezing the warts), laser surgery, or electrodessication (burning and scraping the warts off). While treatment does get rid of visible warts within a few weeks or months, it doesn’t cure the underlying virus. HPV can stay in the body indefinitely, so once you’ve been infected with genital warts, you’re at risk of outbreaks throughout your life.
As mentioned, the HPV vaccine protects against the strains of HPV that cause the majority of genital warts. Condoms are good additional protection, but not 100 percent effective against genital warts. Because of this, the vaccine coupled with condom use is the best way to prevent infection. Research shows the HPV vaccine is most effective when given to children before they become sexually active, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get it just because you’ve already had sex. In Canada, the government recommends that all boys nine to 26 and girls 9 to 45 get the vaccine.
Genital warts in pregnancy
If you’ve previously had genital warts, you should let your healthcare provider know about it, even if you don’t have an outbreak during pregnancy. Sometimes pregnancy-related hormonal changes can cause warts to bleed or grow. In some cases, they can even block the vagina completely or make it difficult for the tissue to stretch enough to accommodate delivery. Although rare, if a mom has an active infection and gives birth vaginally, there is a chance of transmitting an HPV infection to her baby’s throat, impacting their ability to breathe or swallow, so it’s crucial for you to let your doctor or midwife know.
Genital warts are one of the most common sexually transmitted infections, and if you have sex, you’re at risk. Women in particular should be especially alert to the risks genital warts may pose in pregnancy, labour, and delivery. If you think you may have genital warts, speak to your doctor, because treatment options are available.