Anal warts are definitely not a topic for polite conversation. As an affliction upon one of the more intimate parts of the human body, patients frequently have multiple concerns regarding cosmetic appearance, stigmatization, personal health and sexual relationships. It is also not commonly brought up to their spouses or doctors. We are here to find out more about this extremely common condition and dispel common misconceptions about it.
What are Anal Warts?
Anal warts are common skin growth around or inside the anal canal caused by a virus known as the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). They come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from a small pinhead-like growth to big cauliflower-like lesions. They usually do not cause patients much pain or discomfort and patients might not be aware that anal warts are present because of the nature of the location
What is HPV and how is it spread?
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease (STD) in the world. It is a family of viruses with more than 200 types. They are typically divided into low-risk and high-risk types based on associated risk for cancer in any body areas. The low-risk types HPV 6 and/or 11 are detected in around 90 percent of anal warts.
HPV is transmitted through contact with infected skin. Anal HPV infection is almost always acquired through sexual contact. Anal warts by themselves are not required for transmission but are highly infectious.
Common myths about anal warts
Myth #1 – My partner has anal warts, he/she is cheating on me!
This myth is responsible for a great deal of anxiety and anger. HPV infection can lie dormant in the body for months and years before causing anal warts. There is no way to find out when the infection was acquired.
Myth #2 – Anal warts can lead to anal cancer.
Anal warts are almost always benign. They are caused by low-risk HPV types 6, 11, 42, 43 and 44 and do not develop into cancer.
Myth #3 – HPV is incurable, and recurrence of anal warts are common.
It is indeed true that there is no known cure for HPV. However, warts and precancerous lesions can be easily treated when detected. Recurrence of anal warts is not a given, and some patients might find recurrence getting less frequent and eventually stopping with time.
Myth #4 – Condoms use during sex will prevent HPV transmission
Unfortunately, that is not the case. Condom use will prevent transmission of pathogens such as HIV and syphilis that are spread through bodily fluids. They are not so effective against other pathogens such as herpes or HPV as they are spread through skin-to-skin contact. This is because condoms do not cover the entire external genitalia.
Nonetheless, condom use can still lower the risk of HPV transmission and other STDs. They still play an important role in sexual health and STDs prevention strategies.
Diagnosis of anal warts
Diagnosis of anal warts is normally done at the doctor’s office clinically through a thorough history and physical examination. The majority of anal warts do not require a biopsy for diagnosis.
HPV screening for anal warts is not routinely recommended. This is because all commercial laboratories will only test for high-risk HPV types and not low-risk HPV types that causes anal warts.
Anal warts treatment depends on the size, number, site as well as patient’s preference.
Home treatment with preparations such as Imiquimod cream or Podofilox solution are available. However, they are limited in utility due to the locations of the warts which might not be easily reached by the patient.
Cryosurgery is the use of extremely low temperature through liquid nitrogen to destroy the abnormal anal wart cells. It can be done as an office procedure but will require multiple cycles for treatment depending on the size of the warts.
Radiofrequency ablation is a procedure in which heat, which is generated through an electric current, is used to destroy the abnormal anal wart cells. It can also be done as an office procedure. An injectable pain-killer is commonly given before the procedure to numb the area and commonly a single session will be sufficient for anal warts removal.
Finally, if the anal warts are too large or too extensive, surgical excision under general anasthesia might be considered by a surgeon.
By observing safe sexual practices such as use of condoms during sex and limiting the number of sex partners, patients can reduce their chance of contracting HPV.
A vaccine (Gardasil 9) is available for males and females to prevent ano-genital warts but it will not treat existing HPV or ano-genital warts. This vaccine can prevent most cases of genital warts in persons who have not yet been exposed to wart-causing types of HPV.
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