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On the unpredictability of genital warts

November 15, 2019 • read

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On the unpredictability of genital warts

Rates of sexually transmitted infections are rising in Canada, and genital warts are one of the most common infections. While the signs and symptoms of genital warts seem like they’d be pretty obvious, they can be quite sneaky. It’s actually possible to catch them even when your partner has no visible signs. So how can you protect yourself if you don’t know what to look for? Let’s take a look at how genital warts spread, how you can avoid infection, and what to do if you do catch them.

Causes of genital warts

The human papillomavirus (or HPV), is responsible for all the warts we get on our bodies. There are over 100 different strains of HPV, and it’s almost impossible to keep from coming into contact with one of them at some point in our lives. Most forms of the virus don’t cause any symptoms or issues, while some result in warts on our hands or feet. And two strains — HPV-6 and HPV-11 — cause 90 percent of cases of genital warts.

While there are also 14 or more strains of HPV that typically cause cancer, none of these are the ones that cause genital warts. So although genital warts can be awkward and embarrassing, they aren’t usually lethal. We actually refer to these strains as “low risk.”

How will I know if I have genital warts?

The symptoms of genital warts are tricky and elusive. You’re only likely to notice that you have genital warts if you have a visible outbreak, but you can have a case without any symptoms. Warts can show up alone or in a group, and vary in colour: they can be skin tone, a bit darker, or white. Texture-wise they can be either smooth or bumpy (like cauliflower). They’re most easily spotted on the penis, scrotum, vulva, or buttocks. But genital warts can also show up inside the vagina, anus, mouth, or throat, meaning they might not necessarily be visible. In those cases, you might notice other symptoms, such as unusual vaginal discharge or itching. Thankfully, warts don’t usually cause discomfort, but if picked at they might become painful and can also bleed.

How do genital warts spread?

Genital warts are transmitted by direct contact. This means you can’t catch genital warts from hugging, kissing, sharing drinks, towels, baths, or cutlery or from swimming pools or toilet seats. However, you can catch them from sharing sex toys. You’re most likely to get genital warts from vaginal or anal sex (and sometimes, from oral sex) with an infected partner. This is true even if they don’t have any visible warts (although genital warts are more contagious during an outbreak). You also don’t have to have sex to pass them on: touching the affected area is enough. 

Is there a cure for genital warts?

There is currently no cure for genital warts. Some infected people have recurrent flare ups throughout their lives, while others might only have a single occurrence. Some individuals never actually develop visible genital warts themselves, but can still pass it to their sexual partners. For most people, though, the virus will eventually pass through and out of their system in anywhere from a couple of months to 2 years.

It can take months, or sometimes years for genital warts to show up after you are infected, so it’s possible to catch them and never know when you contracted them, or from whom. 

How to stay protected

Genital warts are extremely contagious. In fact, HPV is the most prevalent sexually transmitted infection in North America. Because of this, it’s crucial to take precautions. You should always use condoms with new sexual partners. But be warned: condoms are not 100% effective against genital warts. The virus cannot penetrate the latex, but if there are warts elsewhere on the genitals, it can still be transmitted. They are very effective against other STIs, so don’t use this vulnerability as an excuse to skip them. If you think that you or your partner has a suspicious bump or marking, don’t have sex (or any kind of sexual contact), until you’re able to see a doctor.

If you’re a boy between the ages of nine and 26 or a girl between nine and 45, Health Canada recommends that you receive the HPV vaccine (if you haven’t already). This vaccine protects against several strains responsible for cancer, as well as those that cause most genital warts. Many provinces have free vaccination programs for school-aged children as without vaccination, seventy-five percent of sexually active Canadians end up with a sexually transmitted HPV infection at some point in their lives. 

Treatment

If you think you have genital warts or may have been exposed to them, you need to see a doctor. You should never treat genital warts with the same over-the-counter solutions used for other types of warts, or any other home remedies. Your doctor can either prescribe a topical treatment or remove them using cryotherapy or a laser.

There is no cure for genital warts, so reducing your risk of infection is your best option. Most sexually active individuals get at least one strain of sexually transmitted HPV at some point in their lives (unless they get the vaccine early enough). While genital warts can be embarrassing, the truth is they can affect everyone and anyone who is sexually active. They’re that common. Don’t be afraid to speak to a doctor; treatment options are available to help manage your symptoms.

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