Genital warts

05 February 2013

What are genital warts?

Genital warts appear as painless, flesh-coloured or greyish-white growths at the entrance to the vagina), anus or penis. The viruses that cause genital warts are varieties of the human papillomavirus (HPV).

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 Genital warts have been described since ancient times. The viruses that cause the warts are varieties of the human papillomavirus (HPV). These viruses have an incubation period (interval between exposure to infection and appearance of the first symptom) of one to eight months. The infectivity (risk of infecting others) is highest soon after development of the lesion. Transmission is usually sexual, with more than 50% of contacts being affected. Their appearance around the anus may be related to anal intercourse, but not necessarily. The entire lower genital tract is usually involved, although it may be without obvious symptoms.

Once a person is infected, it is possible to clear the virus if the body develops an appropriate immune response. But, because the virus only infects the most superficial layers of skin and does not enter the bloodstream, the virus may evade the immune system to the extent that the virus may remain on the skin of the infected person for life. It is estimated that over 50% of sexually active adults are infected with the virus at some point in their lives, with men and women being equally affected. The risk of being a carrier rises with the number of sexual partners.

In men they occur within the urethra (tube from the bladder), on the shaft of the penis, the scrotum and the anus. In women, the warts occur on the vulva, the vaginal wall, the cervix and the anus.

(Reviewed by Professor Lynette Denny, Gynaecology Oncology Unit, Department Obstetrics & Gynaecology, University of Cape Town/Groote Schuur Hospital, August 2008)

 

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