Transmission of genital warts AND medical reference book

Originally Published: September 1, 1993 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: October 23, 2009
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Alice-

I have two questions. First, my partner noticed that she has genital warts. She went to her doctor and had them removed. The doctor told her that she had almost certainly gotten them sexually. The problem is: I've known her for about three months, and before that she hadn't been with anyone for a year. But I don't see any warts on me! Do I have the virus without warts, or warts that I don't see, or did she get them other ways? I checked the AMA Family Medical Guide, and it says genital warts can be gotten from, e.g., one's own warts on fingers, etc. What should I do? (P.S.: I've only been with one partner in the past two years, and she doesn't, and hasn't had any warts.)

Second, I want to get a medical reference for myself. I've seen two: the AMA Family Medical Guide and the Mayo Clinic Family Health Guide. Which is better? Disconcertingly, the two seem to disagree not infrequently. My mother is a nurse, so I'm used to looking in Merck's Manual, but I don't see any in area bookstores. Thanks.

—My mother's child

Dear My mother's child,

Let's answer the genital warts questions first. Genital warts are caused by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which is spread through skin to skin contact, including genital, oral, and anal sexual contact. There is some chance the virus could be spread via genital-hand-genital contact (i.e. touching a partner's genitals, then touching your own with the same hand). However, the strains of HPV that cause warts on your hands or feet are not the same strains that cause genital warts — so genital contact with a wart on your (or someone else's) hand won't cause genital warts. In most cases genital warts (also called condyloma) can be eliminated with proper treatment by a doctor and careful follow-up. There is no treatment for HPV itself, although in many cases the body clears and/or controls the virus on its own.

HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) — over 50 percent of sexually active people will get it at some point in their lives — and it very often has no symptoms. Either you or your partner could have become infected with HPV long before you met, even years before. The incubation time (time from exposure to appearance of growths) may range from a few weeks to many months or years. What's more, an infected person can transmit HPV to their sexual partner(s) even if they show no symptoms themselves. The Pap smear, a screening test for women, detects changes in cervical cells that are sometimes related to HPV (although not the strains of HPV that cause warts). If a woman receives "abnormal" Pap smear results, her health care provider may decide to test her for HPV. There is currently no test for HPV in men.

There are two vaccines available in the United States that protect against some common strains (types) of HPV. Both versions are most effective when administered before any exposure to the virus. More information can be found in HPV vaccine.

Your best bet for avoiding HPV infection is to limit your number of sexual partners and practice safer sex. Use latex or polyurethane condoms or dams when you have sex, and avoid touching any visible warts (as condoms or dams may not cover all infected areas). More information is available from the Centers for Disease Control Human Papillomavirus infection webpage. The HPV and Cervical Cancer Prevention Resource Center's toll-free hotline 1-877-HPV-5868 offers information on diagnosis, treatment, prevention, emotional support, and referrals. If you notice warts or any other symptoms, you may want to visit your health care provider. Columbia students can make an appointment by calling x4-2284 or logging into Open Communicator.

Now to your second question about a medical reference... As you have noticed, reputable medical references may disagree, or seem to disagree, at times. This is because while some medical conditions are relatively cut and dry (i.e. they have obvious symptoms specific to that condition that can't be confused with another ailment), many are not. Oftentimes it is necessary for a health care professional to assess your condition (even if the diagnosis seems obvious to you) and use their training and judgment to come to a final diagnosis. That said, when choosing a guide look for features that appeal to you, such as clear presentation, suggestions for preventative measures, or resources for more information. Just keep in mind that while medical references may be informative and help guide your health care, they won't give you self-diagnosis superpowers. Whenever you have a true medical issue, it's a good idea to visit a health care provider to discuss your concerns in addition to doing your own research. Be well!

Alice