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doctor talking about transmission of genital warts

Genital warts are caused by the human papilloma virus which is also known as HPV. HPV is a sexually transmitted infection and as such it is most common in people aged under 30. It is estimated that half of all sexually active people are infected with HPV at some point.

Not everyone infected with HPV will develop genital warts. This is because the body often contains the virus before it causes any symptoms.

People with a weak immune system are more vulnerable and therefore more likely to develop warts. Suffering from another disease as well as an unhealthy lifestyle and diet can contribute to weakening your immune system.

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What causes genital warts?

As with any other sexually transmitted infection (STI), the human papilloma virus is transmitted via sexual intercourse, including anal and oral sex. It can take several months for genital warts to appear after sex with an infected person.

However, you can also be infected through genital contact and in rare cases, babies have been found to catch the virus during childbirth.

About HPV

Out of the over 100 different strains of HPV, about 30 to 40 are transmitted sexually. Yet, very few of these strains are responsible for causing genital warts.

Other strains of the virus are associated with warts elsewhere on the body.

Research highlights, that certain strains of HPV, different to the ones that cause genital warts, can cause cervical cancer. This happens when HPV affects the growth of specific cells, with the infection potentially leading to cervical (neck of the womb) and penile cancer.

Genital Warts Risk Factors

As with most STIs, women are statistically more likely to get infected at a younger age (16-19) and men somewhat later (age 20-24). 

Risk factors include:

  • previous infection with another STI (it increases the risk of further STI infection)
  • becoming sexually active at a young age (the immune system might not be mature enough to fight the virus on its own)
  • tobacco, alcohol and stress which can trigger recurrent eruptions or complications from an HPV infection

To prevent genital warts you should:

  • use condoms, especially when frequently changing sexual partners (i.e. more than two per year)
  • avoid unprotected genital-to-genital contact without penetration

If you experience a sudden and severe outbreak of genital warts, go to your local health clinic or doctor to get tested. A severe and rapid growth and spread of genital warts can be the sign of a problem with your immune system (and possibly an HIV infection).

Always bear in mind that condoms do not provide 100% protection as warts can be located at the base of the penis or on the vulva. The infection can also be transmitted by unprotected contact before penetration.

Genital Warts Statistics

In the past decade, genital warts have reached nearly epidemic proportions in the UK, with over 91,000 new cases in 2009 (in GUM clinics). The infection rate has gone up by 30% in less than ten years, making it the most common sexually transmitted disease in the country. 

In addition to the newly infected, 80,000 to 100,000 more patients suffered from recurring warts or decided to get treatment from a private doctor or GP. 

How Dangerous Is HPV?

Some strains of HPV can cause cervical cancer. The strains of HPV which cause genital warts, however, do not commonly cause cervical or penile cancer.

Women are advised to regularily have a Pap test (or smear test), starting at age 21. A Pap test consists of a biopsy – the extraction of a sample of tissue, which is then analysed to detect pre-cancerous and cancerous cells.

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