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What A Sex Educator Needs You To Know About Genital Warts

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In this week's Sex IDK column, Emma McGowan, certified sex educator and writer, answers your questions about genital warts from HPV.

Q: How do I get rid of genital warts from HPV?

Genital warts are not very pretty and, because STIs carry so much stigma, can lead to people feeling really bummed out about themselves and about sex. But while the human papillomavirus (HPV) isn’t curable, genital warts are totally treatable.

First: What the @#$^%# are genital warts? Genital warts are bumps that can show up on your vulva, scrotum, anus, penis, or cervix. They can be one wart alone, or they might be a cluster of warts that look cauliflower-ish, according to Planned Parenthood. They usually don't feel like anything, but for some people they may be kind of itchy.

Warts can show up literally any amount of time after someone has been exposed to HPV. It could be days, months, or even years. That's why it's so hard to tell where you got an HPV infection from. That means that if your partner has a diagnosis of genital warts, it doesn't mean they're cheating. There's no way to know when or from whom they got the virus.

Pertinent to the above: HPV is one of those sexually transmitted infections (STIs) where the stigma of having it is usually much worse than the actual, physical reality of having it. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), not only will everyone who’s not vaccinated have HPV at some point during their life, but the majority will never show symptoms. And for those who do have symptoms, they’re often so minor that the person doesn’t even notice!

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Additionally, of the around 150 strains of HPV, only two — HPV-6 and HPV-11 — cause genital warts. And those two strains do not cause cervical, anal, or oral cancer. (The strains most commonly associated with cancer are HPV-16 and HPV-18.) So if you have warts, you don’t have to worry that they’re a sign that you’re going to get cancer.

All of that to say: If you’re beating yourself about having HPV, let yourself off the hook. HPV is extremely common, usually low-impact, and totally manageable.

If you do have noticeable warts, they will typically go away on their own, given time. The only thing is, there’s no way to know how much time that’s going to take. So if they’re really bugging you — like they’re uncomfortable or you’re embarrassed and therefore they’re keeping you from having sex — there are options for removing them.

According to the Mayo Clinic, some genital warts can be treated with a cream you apply at home; if they don't respond to that, surgical procedures like freezing or burning them off can get rid of them. The treatment you get depends on on the number, size, and location of your warts. The only way to know which treatment you need is by going to the doctor, getting a diagnosis, and having them recommend a treatment. Whichever method your doctor decides on, they'll make sure you're as comfortable as possible during the removal process and will let you know what to do afterward to heal.

The biggest lesson to take home about genital warts is that no matter how many you have and no matter where they are, they’re treatable. So if they’re bugging you, make an appointment to see your health care provider — and get them taken care of — today.

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