To put it simply, genital warts is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). The microbe was discovered by a German virologist named Harald zur Hausen, who was known for his work on the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).
Zur Hausen noticed that a certain animal papillomavirus caused warts and cancers in rabbits, which led to his hypothesis that a certain papillomavirus that targets humans was causing the genital warts.
Eventually, he proved that his hunch was correct, and was able to discover numerous HPV strains that were the cause of warts and cervical cancer in the late ‘80s.1 For his contribution to the field of medicine, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2008.2
How Do Genital Warts Start Out?
It is estimated that there are more than 100 different HPV strains present today. However, only two strains cause the majority of genital warts: HPV types 6 and 11. These are tagged as “low-risk” strains because they are not fatal and can be eliminated from your body through proper treatment.3
Once the HPV enters your skin, it infects skin cells, causing them to grow and form the characteristic warts. The warts contain the HPV virus, and they can shed through a small opening, easily passing it on to others through sexual intercourse or other skin-to-skin contact.4
What Do Genital Warts Look Like?
Genital warts typically look like small, flesh-colored bumps, but in some cases, they can appear grayish. They typically appear in tight clusters, and may take on the texture of a cauliflower. You may experience itching and discomfort in your genital region, and they can bleed should you engage in sexual intercourse.5
In men, the warts can appear anywhere on the penis, such as the tip or the shaft. Adjacent areas may be affected as well, such as the scrotum or anus. In some cases, warts can appear inside the penis as well, specifically in the urethra. In women, the symptoms appear outside the vagina or inside it, particularly in the cervix.
Asymptomatic HPV Can Be Potentially Harmful
What makes HPV potentially harmful to your health is that it can be asymptomatic, which means that you have the disease, but you don’t develop symptoms. In short, you can easily spread HPV to your partner without you knowing. In addition, certain HPV strains are tagged as “high-risk” and if left untreated, can cause cervical, vaginal, anal or rectal cancer. Two high-risk strains have been identified that cause these cancers, which are HPV types 16 and 18.6
This is where the importance of regular testing comes in. If you’re a sexually active woman, doctors recommend that you undergo a Pap test regularly or have an HPV test to check for the presence of HPV in your system. The test will help identify if you’re at risk of developing genital warts or cervical cancer. Either way, the test will serve as the signal for you to get treatment if any abnormalities are found.7