Genital warts are a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that’s caused by HPV (human papillomavirus) and can be very contagious. Because it’s so contagious, it has become one of the most common STI in the world, with 1 million annual cases in the United States alone. In reality, the number of new HPV infections every year is higher than 1 million, but people with healthy immune systems may not have any symptoms or visible warts, and thus don’t even notice the infection. The tricky thing about genital warts, is that even without symptoms a person still can pass on the virus to other people.
HPV is a big family of viruses — numbering some 140 sub-types in total — that can cause a wide range of diseases, including cancer of the cervix. However, the culprits behind genital warts are HPV type 6 and type 11 and fortunately, they don’t usually cause any serious complications.
In most people, that is about 80% of infections, the immune system eventually will learn to deal with and suppress the virus with antibodies. In some cases, it can even fully wipe out the virus, but most likely it will stay in your body without causing any active wart outbreaks.
Genital warts are irregular skin growths that look a bit like small, flesh-colored cauliflowers on the surface of your skin. At first you may see a single wart, however, left untreated or not suppressed by the immune system, clusters of warts can then form. These warts may be harder and have a harsh surface.
It’s always recommended to have any wart-like growth in your privates checked by your primary MD or gynecologist, since warts can be a sign of several STIs, including more serious conditions such as syphilis. Statistically, it will most likely be HPV but you need to make absolutely sure. All it takes is a simple test at the clinic or at home.
Among all STIs, HPV is the one with the highest transmission success rate: for every one sexual encounter with an infected partner who has or just had an active wart outbreak, there’s a 75% chance of catching HPV. Whether you develop warts and when is another question. The chances may be considerably lower with a haelthy immune system. Unfortunately, once you have HPV, you’ll most likely carry the virus with you for your entire life.
Intercourse is not needed for ttasmission which can occur with skin contact alone. All it takes is direct cintact to an infected area.
So, if you currently have genital warts or had them before (or even if you never had active warts but know that you may carry HPV in your body), you’ll need to tell your partner about it before you start any sexual activities. He or she will need to know that there’s a risk of contagion.
Given how common HPV infections are in the US population, there’s actually a good chance that your partner already has the virus. Since tests are cheap and easy to do, it might be worth getting your partner tested for it. If it turns out you both are HPV positive and already have antibodies, then there’s nothing to worry about. Of course, you’ll still need to think about other STIs.
No. The fun-killing fact is that abstinence is the only fully guaranteed protection against genital warts and HPV transmission. If you have the wart-causing HPV strains and your partner doesn’t yet have them, even using condoms will leave your partner at a risk of contagion. As mentioned, simple petting and oral sex are enough to pass on HPV.
In general, try to avoid sex when you have visible warts. Even once warts have disappeared or have been treated or removed by a doctor, it’s advisable to wait for another 4-6 months before you have sex, if you don’t want to risk passing it to your partner.
Be direct and honest about it, and don’t feel ashamed. HPV infections are so common in the population that infection doesn’t allow for generalized conclusions on somebody’s lifestyle or sexual preferences. Nobody should judge you for having HPV.
Choose the right time and place for a frank conversation. If you don’t want to tell your partner directly, consider taking them along to a doctor’s appointment. Your doctor can break the news to your partner and answer all questions in a professional way.
When you tell your partner about HPV and genital warts, it’s important to keep things in perspective. It’s not a mortal disease and, in fact, doesn’t usually cause significant or lastun harm. Even though it’s very contagious — which is a point you’ll need to be absolutely honest about — it’s not much of a health threat. Moreover, if your partner has a strong immune system, they may never even develop any warts.
All in all, in the realm of STIs there are far more difficult discussions that can happen than talking about genital warts.
Telling your partner is only the first step however, as you will need to have a plan ready on what to do next. Because your partner’s first response will be: What now? The first logical step would be to get your partner tested for HPV. Once that’s been cleared, the next steps can be taken. If your partner is HPV positive, then you can proceed with sexual activity. If not, then you’ll need to discuss how to make your sex life safer to minimize contagion. You can take measures to reduce the risk, such as by monitoring your genital areas for any signs of a new wart outbreak. It’s also recommended that you and your partner consult a doctor or STI expert to learn more about preventing HPV transmission.
Reviewed by Dr Roy Kedem, MD
Information last reviewed 10/13/21