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  • Wart virus infection can cause visible genital or anal warts, or it can cause no symptoms.
  • Infection is difficult to treat, and can have serious consequences for women.
  • Condom use contributes to preventing the spread of wart virus infection.

What Causes Warts?

Genital and anal warts are common diseases transmitted sexually. They result from infection with one or more of a group of microscopic organisms called human papilloma viruses (HPV).

HPV infection may cause an outbreak of visible warts, but more commonly it causes no signs at all. This explains why HPV infection spreads easily among sexually active people.

In women, undetected HPV infection on the cervix may lead to cell changes that, if untreated, can lead to cervical cancer. But this can be stopped by appropriate treatment if infection is detected.

How You Know You have Warts or HPV Infection

Sometimes HPV infection causes visible warts. These occur as small, painless, cauliflower-shaped lumps on the skin or mucous membranes. They can appear:

  • On the penis or urethra.
  • In the vagina or on the cervix.
  • In or around the anus, or on the scrotum or groin.
  • On the lips or in the mouth (rarely).

Since the warts may be very small, sometimes too small to see with the naked eye, some people carry them without knowing. Occasionally warts in the urethra or anus will cause small amounts of bleeding during sex, urination or bowel movements.

There is no blood test or swab test for HPV infection. Women often learn they have HPV infection only when they have a routine Pap smear. Men may learn they have HPV infection only when they infect a partner.

How HPV and Warts Are Spread

HPV infection is spread through direct contact with a partner's infected skin or mucous membranes, whether there are visible warts or not. This occurs most commonly during sexual contact. HPV can be spread by any kind of sexual contact, including non-penetrative sex. Occasionally, non-sexual touching of affected areas can also spread infection in some circumstances.

Because HPV infection can have serious consequences for women, heterosexual men have a particular responsibility not to pass the infection to their female sexual partners. Sexually active men should have regular check ups for HPV infection.

How Warts Are Treated

There is no cure for HPV infection as such, but there is a variety of treatments for warts and for areas of HPV-infected skin. The simplest way of treating warts is the application of a chemical called podophyllin paint, once or twice weekly.

Freezing the warts with liquid nitrogen is also a very effective way of removing them. Other methods include laser or diathermy (burning).

None of these methods guarantees that all warts will be removed, and they are likely to re-grow or recur several times before being eradicated. Because HPV infection is still present, there may be new outbreaks, although often the body's own defences get rid of the virus altogether. People who have had warts are advised to have regular checks.

How To Prevent HPV Infection and Warts

Our limited knowledge about HPV infection makes it difficult to say with certainty how HPV infection may be completely avoided. We do not know when a person who has been treated for warts stops being infectious, or how long a person with warts may already have been infectious.

But it is clear that the use of condoms for vaginal or anal intercourse will contribute to preventing the spread of HPV, particularly in the cervix and anus, where undetected infection may occasionally lead to cancer. But because HPV may be present anywhere in the anal-genital area, condoms will not completely prevent possible HPV infection during intimate contact.

It is also clear that visible warts must be treated as soon as they appear, and that sexual partners should be checked.

Sexually active women should have regular Pap smears (at least once a year).


North East Valley Division General Practice, Victoria, Australia, Disclaimer 
Level 1, Pathology Building, Repatriation Campus, A&RMC, Heidelberg West VIC 3081. .. map
Phone: 03 9496 4333, Fax: 03 9496 4349,  Email: nevdgp@nevdgp.org.au
Please note: NEVDGP does not provide an on-line consultation