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Severe case of genital warts around the anus
Genital warts (or condylomata acuminata, venereal warts, anal warts and anogenital warts) are symptoms of a highly contagious sexually transmitted disease caused by some types of human papillomavirus (HPV). It is spread through direct skin-to-skin contact, usually during oral, genital, or anal sex with an infected partner. Warts are the most easily recognized symptom of genital HPV infection. Although some types of HPV are known to cause cervical cancer and anal cancers, these are not the same types of HPV that cause genital warts. Although 90% of those who contract HPV will not develop genital warts, those infected can still transmit the virus. Although estimates of incidence vary between studies, HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active people will get it at some point in their lives.
HPV types 6 and 11 are most frequently the cause of genital warts. The Gardasil vaccine includes coverage for these types. While types 6 and 11 are considered low risk for progression to cancers, it is also possible to be infected with different varieties of HPV, such as a low-risk HPV that causes warts and a high-risk HPV, either at the same or different times.
Signs and symptoms
Genital warts may occur singly but are more often found in clusters. They may be found anywhere in the anal or genital area, and are frequently found on external surfaces of the body, including the penile shaft, scrotum, labia majora of the vagina, or around the anus. They can also occur on internal surfaces like the opening to the urethra, inside the vagina, on the cervix, or in the anus. In males they are frequently found on or around the head of the penis.
They can be as small as 1-5mm in diameter, but can also grow or spread into large masses in the genital or anal area. In some cases they look like small stalks. They may be hard ("keratinized") or soft. Their color can be variable, and sometimes they may bleed.
In most cases, there are no symptoms of HPV infection other than the warts themselves. Sometimes warts may cause itching, redness, or discomfort, especially when they occur around the anus. Although they are usually without other physical symptoms, an outbreak of genital warts may cause psychological distress, such as anxiety, in some people.
HPV is most commonly transmitted through penetrative sex. While HPV can also be transmitted via non-penetrative sexual activity, it is less transmissible than via penetrative sex. There is conflicting evidence about the effect of condoms on transmission of low-risk HPV. Some studies have suggested that they are effective at reducing transmission. Other studies suggest that condoms are not effective at preventing transmission of the low-risk HPV variants that cause genital warts. The effect of condoms on HPV transmission may also be gender-dependent; there is some evidence that condoms are more effective at preventing infection of males than of females.
The types of HPV that cause warts are highly transmissible. Roughly three out of four unaffected partners of patients with warts develop them within eight months. Other studies of partner concordance suggest that the presence of visible warts may be an indicator of increased infectivity; HPV concordance rates are higher in couples where one partner has visible warts.
Latency and recurrence
Although 90% of HPV infections are cleared by the body within two years of infection, it is possible for infected cells to undergo a latency (quiet) period, with the first occurrence or a recurrence of symptoms happening months or years later. Latent HPV, even with no outward symptoms, is still transmissible to a sexual partner. If an individual has unprotected sex with an infected partner, there is a 70% chance that he or she will also become infected.
In individuals with a history of previous HPV infection, the appearance of new warts may be either from a new exposure to HPV, or from a recurrence of the previous infection. As many as one-third of people with warts will experience a recurrence.
Anal or genital warts may be transmitted during birth. The presence of wart-like lesions on the genitals of young children has been suggested as an indicator of sexual abuse. However, genital warts can sometimes result from autoinoculated by warts elsewhere on the body, such as from the hands. It has also been reported from sharing of swimsuits, underwear, or bath towels, and from non-sexual touching during routine care such as diapering. Genital warts in children are less likely to be caused by HPV subtypes 6 and 11 than adults, and more likely to be caused by HPV types that cause warts elsewhere on the body ("cutaneous types"). Surveys of pediatricians who are child abuse specialists suggest that in children younger than 4 years old, there is no consensus on whether the appearance of new anal or genital warts, by itself, can be considered an indicator of sexual abuse.
The diagnosis of genital warts is most often made visually, but may require confirmation by biopsy in some cases. Smaller warts may occasionally be confused with molluscum contagiosum. Genital warts, histopathologically, characteristically rise above the skin surface due to enlargement of the dermal papillae, have parakeratosis and the characteristic nuclear changes typical of HPV infections (nuclear enlargement with perinuclear clearing). DNA tests are available for diagnosis of high-risk HPV infections. Because genital warts are caused by low-risk HPV types, DNA tests cannot be used for diagnosis of genital warts or other low-risk HPV infections.
Some practitioners use an acetic acid solution to identify smaller warts ("subclinical lesions"), but this practice is controversial. Because a diagnosis made with acetic acid will not meaningfully affect the course of the disease, and cannot be verified by a more specific test, a 2007 UK guideline advises against its use.
Gardasil (sold by Merck & Co.) is a vaccine that protects against human papillomavirus types 16, 18, 6, and 11. Types 6 and 11 cause genital warts, while 16 and 18 cause cervical cancer. The vaccine is preventive, not therapeutic, and must be given before exposure to the virus type to be effective, ideally before the beginning of sexual activity. The vaccine is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for use in both males and females as early as 9 years of age.
In the UK, Gardasil replaced Cervarix in September 2012 for reasons unrelated to safety. Cervarix had been used routinely in young females from its introduction in 2008, but was only effective against the high-risk HPV types 16 and 18, neither of which typically causes warts.
There is no cure for HPV. Existing treatments are focused on the removal of visible warts, but these may also regress on their own without any therapy. There is no evidence to suggest that removing visible warts reduces transmission of the underlying HPV infection. As many as 80% of people with HPV will clear the infection within 18 months.
A healthcare practitioner may offer one of several ways to treat warts, depending on their number, sizes, locations, or other factors. All treatments can potentially cause depigmentation, itching, pain, or scarring.
Treatments can be classified as either physically ablative, or topical agents. Physically ablative therapies are considered more effective at initial wart removal, but like all therapies have significant recurrence rates.
Many therapies, including folk remedies, have been suggested for treating genital warts, some of which have little evidence to suggest they are effective or safe. Those listed here are ones mentioned in national or international practice guidelines as having some evidence basis for their use.
Physically ablative methods are more likely to be effective on keratinized warts. They are also most appropriate for patients with fewer numbers of relatively smaller warts.
- Simple excision, such as with scissors under local anesthesia, is highly effective.
- Liquid nitrogen cryosurgery is usually performed in an office visit, at weekly intervals. It is effective, inexpensive, safe for pregnancy, and does not usually cause scarring.
- Electrocauterization (sometimes called "loop electrical excision procedure" or LEEP) is procedure with a longer history of use, and is considered effective.
- Laser ablation has less evidence to suggest its use. It may be less effective than other ablative methods. It is extremely expensive, and often used as a last resort.
- Formal surgical procedures, performed by a specialist under general anesthesia, may be necessary for larger or more extensive warts, intra-anal warts, or warts in children. It carries a greater risk of scarring than other methods.
- A 0.15% – 0.5% podophyllotoxin (also called podofilox) solution in a gel or cream. Marketed as Condylox (0.5%), Wartec (0.15%) and Warticon (0.15%), it can be applied by the patient to the affected area and is not washed off. It is the purified and standardized active ingredient of the podophyllin (see below). Podofilox is safer and more effective than podophyllin. Skin erosion and pain are more commonly reported than with imiquimod and sinecatechins. Its use is cycled (2 times per day for 3 days then 4–7 days off); one review states that it should only be used for four cycles.
- Imiquimod (Aldara) is a topical immune response cream, applied to the affected area. It causes less local irritation than podofilox but may cause fungal infections (11% in package insert) and flu-like symptoms (less than 5% disclosed in package insert).
- Sinecatechins (marketed as Veregen and Polyphenon E) is an ointment of catechins (55% epigallocatechin gallate) extracted from green tea and other components. Mode of action is undetermined. It appears to have higher clearance rates than podophyllotoxin and imiquimod and causes less local irritation, but clearance takes longer than with imiquimod.
- Trichloroacetic acid (TCA) is less effective than cryosurgery, and is not recommended for use in the vagina, cervix, or urinary meatus.
- Interferon can be used; it is effective, but it is also expensive and its effect is inconsistent.
- A 5% 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) cream was used, but it is no longer considered an acceptable treatment due to the side-effects.
Genital HPV infections have an estimated prevalence in the US of 10–20% and clinical manifestations in 1% of the sexually active adult population. US incidence of HPV infection has increased between 1975 and 2006. About 80% of those infected are between the ages of 17–33. Although treatments can remove the warts, they do not remove the HPV, so warts can recur after treatment (about 50–73% of the time). Warts can also spontaneously regress (with or without treatment).
Traditional theories postulated that the virus remained in the body for a lifetime. However, studies using sensitive DNA techniques have shown that through immunological response the virus can either be cleared or suppressed to levels below what polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests can measure. One study testing genital skin for subclinical HPV using PCR found a prevalence of 10%.
- US National Cancer Institute. "HPV and Cancer". Retrieved 2 January 2013.
- US Centers for Disease Control. "Genital HPV Infection - Fact Sheet". Retrieved 2 January 2013.
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