Genital warts look very unsightly, can be uncomfortable and cause pain during sex. Genital warts get their name from their shape, which usually tapers upwards. Some are more like the size of a pinhead, flat nodules and are hard to see at first. They are also known as genital warts. These skin growths in the intimate area are among the most common sexually transmitted diseases, but sex is not the only route of infection.
Pathogens are also often transmitted through infection. “You can also become infected with human papillomaviruses (HPV for short), for example in a sauna or through light physical contact,” explains Norbert Brockmeyer from the Center for Sexual Health and Medicine “WIR” in Bochum. “HPV is highly contagious, so highly contagious. There are over 200 different types.” Dangerous fall under the designation of low-risk types. These include, but are not limited to, HPV 6 and 11. They are the main cause of genital warts and appear most often on the genitals and anus, but are not considered cancerous.
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Some HPV infections are precancerous
Our body can usually deal with the infection without medication. However, this requires an intact immune system. Then our body recognizes the viruses and destroys them.
Anyone who is worried that they have been infected should definitely go to the doctor and get tested. When high-risk HPV types are present, they can lead to precancerous lesions. Types 16 and 18 are especially dangerous. “Tumors may initially look like warts and then develop further or immediately cause skin changes,” says expert Brockmeyer. “They then look like small eczema, they are sometimes slightly reddened and peel off a bit. But behind that is the incipient cancer, i.e. the pre-cancerous stage, for example of the cervix.”
The smear can be used to analyze and assign cellular changes in the laboratory and determine the HP virus. Is it a low-risk type or a high-risk type? The doctor will first remove the changes. There are different methods for this: laser removal or a small, painless operation. However, this in itself does not guarantee that skin or mucosal changes can really be removed once and for all. They can always grow up. This means that regular check-ups are extremely important.
The risk of miscarriage increases
In Germany alone, around 4,600 women get cervical cancer every year. About a third of them will die from this type of cancer. In Europe, cervical cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer death in girls and women between the ages of 15 and 45. But other numbers are also alarming: more than 50,000 operations are performed annually for precancerous cervical lesions. Women who have to undergo such a procedure have an increased risk of miscarriage in subsequent pregnancies.
Not only women are affected, but also men can become infected with the HP virus and develop the corresponding clinical picture – for example on the penis. Warts or cancer can also develop on other sensitive parts of our body. This also includes the mouth and throat area. For example, oral sex can transfer the virus to the oral mucosa and cause tumors in the mouth.
Human papillomaviruses are highly infectious
Many HPV infections are asymptomatic. This makes them even more unpredictable. “Sometimes just touching a wart is enough to transmit the virus. Small flakes of skin can be enough.” If HP viruses get into an injury – no matter how small and inconspicuous – the virus can be passed on. As with all sexually transmitted infections (STIs), condoms can reduce the risk of infection. But even these are not a guarantee, because they do not shade all the important skin parts in the genital area.
HPV vaccination is a success story
HP viruses are usually eliminated 90 percent of the time by people with good immune systems. But as with all sexually transmitted infections (STIs), the earlier the infection is detected, the earlier and better it can be treated.
Harald zur Hausen discovered the link between viruses and cervical cancer and laid the foundation for the development of the HPV vaccine. In 2008, he received the Nobel Prize for this.
The best prevention is vaccination against HPV. In Germany, the first two HPV vaccines were approved in 2006 and 2007. Both Gardasil and Cervarix prevent infection with high-risk types HPV 16 and HPV 18, which can cause cancer. Another vaccine was approved in 2015.
The STIKO permanent vaccination commission has been recommending vaccinating girls between the ages of nine and 14 for years. Before the first sexual intercourse, the risk of infection with HP viruses is almost zero. Vaccination recommendations now also apply to boys, as they too can become infected and spread the virus. “With the vaccine, we achieve a protective effect of over 95 percent against tumors and tumor precursors. That is why it is so important to vaccinate as many people as possible,” appeals Brockmeyer. Any side effects are a very small evil compared to the success of the vaccination. Any redness and swelling at the vaccination site will disappear after a few days.
This article originally appeared on 09/20/2018 and was updated on 11/25/2022.