Human papillomavirus is known as one of the most common STDs. However, it actually refers to a group of more than 100 strains of common viruses which can manifest in mild or serious health problems. Of all HPV strains, more than 40 strains are related to male and female’s genital areas. This revolves around the vulva, the skin of the penis, anus, cervix and rectum. High-risk HPV strains such as types 16 and 18 are behind at least 70% of cervical cancers. On the other hand, low-risk HPV strains such as types 6 and 11 almost always manifest in genital warts (condyloma acuminatum).
Warts are basically small and grainy skin growths that can be brown, gray, pearly, light or flesh-colored. They usually resemble the shape of cauliflower. A person can have one or multiple warts. Oftentimes, warts are clustered and resemble raised skin lesions. These soft growths may be painless, but in some cases, they can cause itching and discomfort for the infected person. Genital warts can appear on the vulva, vagina, cervix, penis, scrotum, or even anus.
Are warts always caused by HPV?
Although not all strains of HPV end up in genital warts, all genital warts always occur because of some strains of HPV. Types 6 and 11 are said to be behind 90% of genital warts (the CDC, 2018). However, it is possible to mistake moles, tags or other lesions for warts. Due to this reason, it is best to consult a healthcare professional to be certain than self-diagnose.
It is also important to note that not all bumps on the genital areas are warts. According to Planned Parenthood, there may be other infections and skin conditions which make people think that they are warts when in reality, they are something else.
Types of warts
There are several types of HPV warts and they are not limited to taking place in the genital areas.
Common warts usually develop on elbows, fingers or hands. They are rough in texture, red and bumpy. These warts may be painful and bleed easily.
Unlike common warts, genital warts seldom cause pain. However, they can be itchy. These warts are mostly found in the vulva, around the anus, cervix, on the penis, or in the vagina. Genital warts can appear like groups of cauliflowers, tiny raised bumps or flat lesions that look like bruises.
Flat warts are usually brownish or yellowish in color and appear in large numbers. They usually take the form of smooth bumps which are flat-topped. Types 3, 10, 28, and 49 cause these warts. Flat warts are mostly discovered on the face, legs and back of the hands.
Plantar warts normally occur on the feet, particularly on the balls and heels of the feet which endure the most pressure. Most of these warts are not considered significant health concerns. HPV which leads to plantar warts may enter through tiny breaks on the bottom of the feet.
When do genital warts appear?
It can be hard to detect or know when you get HPV infection or who you get it from because it may take weeks, months or years for genital warts to emerge after sexual contact. What is more, a person can get HPV without actually having warts. In some cases, HPV presents no symptoms but the infected person is still contagious. The recurrence of warts also varies among people. Some may only get genital warts once while others may experience them several times. Every person’s immune system responds to HPV differently, which is why not every person ends up with warts.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 9 out of 10 cases, HPV usually clears up on its own within 2 years. This happens due to the immune system’s ability to get rid of the infection in people with good health.
When genital warts occur, do not be quick to assume that your partner is cheating on you. This is not always true because warts can take a really long time to show up and you or your partner might have gotten HPV a long time ago. In some people, HPV can live in the body for months or years before manifesting into genital warts. Almost all STDs are sneaky in nature, but HPV can get truly tricky to detect. To pinpoint the exact time you get genital warts and who inflicts it on you is an intricate matter. A person can have the strains of HPV that cause warts without having the warts themselves. Even with this condition, he or she can still pass the HPV to another person and that other person can end up having warts. Moreover, the trickiness in knowing whether or not you have HPV is amplified because there is no certain diagnosis when it comes to detecting HPV in males other than visual observation by a healthcare professional.
How do we know if it’s real warts?
As mentioned above, it may be tricky to know if they’re skin tags, moles or warts. Below are brief summaries on the differences between warts vs. moles and warts vs. skin tags:
- Skin tags vs. warts: Distinguishing skin tags and warts is rather easy. Skin tags are often flappy and look like balloons. They are soft and colorless. Warts, on the other hand, have rough textures and resemble patches of thick skin. Warts are deep while skin tags only hang on the surface of the skin. Both of them can be colorless.
- Moles vs. warts: Differentiating moles from warts are also quite simple. The main distinction lies in the color. Moles are usually brown and warts are colorless. Moles take the form of dark spots from which hair might grow while warts have no hair growing from them. The skin of moles, similar to skin tags, are soft whereas the skin around and on top of warts are known to be rough. Both skin tags and moles are not contagious.
There is currently no cure for HPV, but this condition is preventable through vaccines. Shim Clinic is a sexual health clinic specializing in STD testing and treating STDs. Besides diagnosis and treatment, we also carry preventative measures such as HIV PrEP, HIV PEP and HPV vaccine, Gardasil-9.