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Anogenital Warts

Symptoms, diagnosis and treatments

What are anogenital warts and what causes them?

Anogenital warts (sometimes just called genital warts) are small lumps that develop on the genitals and/or around the anus (back passage). They are caused by a virus called the human papillomavirus (HPV). There are over 100 types of this virus. Most anogenital warts are caused by types 6 or 11. (Common warts that many people have on their hands and feet are caused by a different type of HPV.)


How do you get anogenital warts?

The virus is passed on by sexual contact. You need close skin to skin contact to pass on the virus. This means that you do not necessarily need to have penetrative sex to pass on infection. Sharing sex toys may also pass on infection. Very rarely, anogenital warts may be passed on from hand warts. They may also rarely be passed on to a baby when a woman gives birth.


It can take weeks or months to develop warts after being infected with HPV. Also, most people infected with HPV do not develop warts. You can be a carrier of the virus without realising it, and you may pass on the virus to others who then develop warts. It is also possible to pass on the virus after warts have been treated or gone.


Because it can take some time to develop warts after being infected with HPV, if you have just developed noticeable anogenital warts, it does not necessarily mean that either partner has been recently unfaithful. You may have had HPV for a long time without developing warts.  It is also possible t develop anal warts even if you have not had anal sex.


How common are anogenital warts?

They are common and are one of the most commonly diagnosed sexually transmitted infections in the UK. Many more people are infected with the virus, but do not develop visible warts (they are carriers).

An individual has over a 5 in 10 chance of having HPV infection in their lifetime. However, most people do not know that they have been infected because they have no symptoms. Only about 1-2 in 100 people with HPV infection develop anogenital warts.


Where do anogenital warts develop?

In men, the warts usually develop on the outer skin of the penis. In women, the warts usually develop on the vulva, just outside the vagina. Warts may also develop on the skin around the anus, both in men and in women.

Sometimes warts develop inside the vagina, on the cervix, on the scrotum, inside the urethra (the tube that drains urine from the bladder to the outside) or inside the anus. Rarely, they occur in the mouth or nose.


What do anogenital warts look like?

They look like small, skin-coloured lumps on the skin (similar to the common warts that many people have on their hands). Warts that develop on skin that is warm, moist, and non-hairy (such as the vulva) tend to be soft. Warts that develop on skin that is dry and hairy (such as the shaft of the penis) tend to be firm.

The number of warts that develop varies from person to person. Some people have just a few that are barely noticeable. Some people have many around their genitals and anus.


What are the symptoms of anogenital warts?

In most cases, the warts cause no physical discomfort. They sometimes cause irritation and soreness, especially if they occur around the anus. Sometimes anogenital warts can bleed or cause pain on intercourse. If you have warts inside your urethra or anus, this can sometimes cause bleeding when you pass urine or bleeding from the anus.

They are benign. That is, they cause no serious physical illness. However, the warts look unsightly and some people become distressed by this. For pictures of anogenital warts click here (warning: graphic images) .


Do I need any tests?

Anogenital warts can usually be diagnosed by their typical appearance when you are examined by a doctor or nurse. Your doctor or nurse will examine your external genitalia to look for warts. They may also suggest that they do an internal examination of your vagina or back passage to look for warts here.

So, tests are not usually needed to confirm the diagnosis. However, up to 1 in 4 people with anogenital warts also have another sexually transmitted infection. Tests such as swabs are commonly advised to check for other infections - even if you do not have any symptoms.

If you have anogenital warts, your doctor or nurse may refer you to a sexual health specialist in a genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic, or to a sexual health clinic for treatment. If you are worried that you may have anogenital warts or another sexually transmitted infection, you may choose to visit a sexual health clinic from the outset.


What are the treatment options for anogenital warts?

There are a number of different treatments that can be used and they are described below. Whatever the treatment, it usually takes several weeks of treatment to clear the warts. Sometimes it can take up to six months of treatment.

Treatment may be a little uncomfortable and cause some irritation of the skin around the area that is being treated. Also, smokers tend to respond less well to treatment, so stopping smoking may be beneficial to your treatment. Sometimes, one treatment may not be successful. If this is the case, another treatment may be advised. There is also a chance that anogenital warts can return after treatment. This is because the treatments do not clear the HPV virus itself but just treat the warty lumps.

Wart treatments that are sold over the counter in pharmacies should not be used to treat anogenital warts.


No treatment

One option is not to have any treatment. Anogenital warts are not serious, but can be unsightly. Some people prefer to just leave them alone. There is a good chance that they will go without any treatment. In fact, about one third of visible warts disappear by themselves over six months.


Chemical treatments

A number of chemicals, when put on to warts, will burn or destroy the wart tissue.



Physical treatments

Various techniques can destroy the wart tissue. They include:


Which is the best treatment?

Each treatment has pros and cons. The treatment decided upon depends on factors such as how many warts are present, where they are, whether a home- or clinic-based treatment is preferred, etc. For example, some chemical treatments should not be used internally (on the cervix, vagina or inside the anus); some chemical treatments should not be used if you are pregnant; cryotherapy is usually only used for small to moderate numbers of warts, etc.


What about my sexual partner?

Current sexual partner(s) may wish to be checked to see if they have warts or other sexually transmitted diseases.


Is there a link between anogenital warts and cervical cancer?

The types of HPV that most commonly cause anogenital warts (types 6 and 11) do not increase your risk of cervical cancer. HPV types 6 and 11 cause over 9 in 10 cases of anogenital warts. However, some other types of HPV do increase your risk of developing cervical cancer. You may have more than one type of HPV infection at the same time (one type that causes anogenital warts and one type that may increase your risk of cervical cancer).

So, it is important that women with anogenital warts (the same as every woman) have cervical screening tests at the usual recommended times and do not put it off. You do not need to have cervical screening tests more regularly if you have anogenital warts.


How can you prevent anogenital warts?

Condoms

Condoms (male or female) may prevent HPV from being passed on to new sexual partners who are not infected. However, they do not completely protect you from getting anogenital warts as the skin that is not covered by a condom can become infected. But condoms do help to protect against other sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia and HIV. You should also use condoms whilst having oral sex and you should not share sex toys.

It is commonly advised that you should use condoms when you have sex whilst you are being treated for warts, and for at least a further three months after they have gone.


HPV vaccine

The Department of Health originally chose a type of vaccine (Cervarix®) that did not protect against the common types of HPV that cause anogenital warts (types 6 and 11) in its national immunisation campaign. However, it has been agreed that the vaccine should be changed to a type that covers HPV-6/11/16/18 (Gardasil®) from September 2012.


What is the outlook?

Anogenital warts can usually be cleared with treatment. However, in about 1 in 4 cases, new warts develop at some time after successful treatment. This is usually because the same infection has re-activated, not because you have a newly acquired infection. If warts do recur, they can be treated in the same way.


How can I get further help and information?

If you suspect that you have anogenital warts, or any other sexually transmitted infection, then see your GP or contact your local GUM clinic. You can go to the local GUM clinic without a referral from your GP. You can ring the local hospital or health authority and ask where the nearest clinic is. It may also be listed in the phone book under Genito-Urinary Medicine.


Other resources include:

Family Planning Association

Helpline (England): 0845 122 8690 Helpline (Northern Ireland): 0845 122 8687

www.fpa.org.uk

Provides information and advice on all aspects of contraception and sexual health.


British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH)

www.bashh.org

A professional association but their website includes contact details of GUM clinics.


Download a fact sheet on Anogenital Warts

Anogenital warts are caused by a virus that can be passed on by close sexual contact. Treatment options include direct application of chemicals or physical treatments such as freezing or surgery to destroy the warts. If you have anogenital warts, it is advisable to be checked for other sexually transmitted infections.

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If you have any additional questions about anogenital warts or other colorectal issues, your own GP is often the best first port of call.

If appropriate, they will be able to arrange a referral to a colorectal specialist centre such as the Glasgow Colorectal Centre.