Dormant genital warts? Inactive? Gone?

Dear Alice,

A little over one year ago, I was diagnosed with genital warts. I was prescribed a topical ointment, which I applied to the affected areas. Eventually, I decided that the treatment caused me more discomfort than the warts themselves, so I stopped using it. They have since then slowly disappeared. Have they really disappeared? Or are they "dormant," "asymptomatic," etc.? Can I have unprotected sex with my girlfriend without putting her at risk?

— Optimistic in Chicago

Dear Optimistic in Chicago,

Your conscientiousness about protecting your partner's sexual health is admirable. It’s great that your symptoms have subsided to the point where you’re wondering whether the virus is in your body anymore. Unfortunately, there's no way of knowing for sure whether your system has cleared the virus entirely or if it’s simply lying dormant. Therefore, using barriers and various medications will still be useful in reducing the risk of transmission, as unprotected sex can still put your partner at risk for contracting genital warts. Read on to learn more!

Genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). This virus can be treated with medication. However, it may become intermittently active and inactive for reasons that aren't clearly understood. Often people are asymptomatic when they have HPV, (meaning that person may not know they have the virus) and it often goes away or becomes inactive on its own. Unfortunately, the virus's activity level can't always be determined by the human eye. Fortunately, there are medicines and vaccines that may help to prevent transmission in active and inactive cases of genital warts.

As you've mentioned, genital warts can be treated with medication that can be applied directly onto the skin. These medications either destroy or burn the warts themselves, or boost your immune system in order to more effectively combat the virus. However, as you've experienced, some of these medications can come with side effects. Talking with a health care provider can help you find the medication that's best suited for you.

In terms of vaccines against HPV, there are currently three vaccines available in the US that have received approval from the Food and Drug Administration. These vaccines protect against the specific strains of HPV most often associated with cervical cancer. Note that these vaccines don't cure HPV and won't work if someone has already been exposed to the strains of the virus used in the vaccine. If you're interested in learning more about them, you and your partner could ask a health care provider to see if the vaccination would be appropriate for either of you.

Furthermore, if you have visible warts, the safest way to prevent transmission is to avoid sexual contact around the areas with warts. Using barriers, such as condoms and dental dams, can reduce the risk of transmitting infection. However, this doesn't eliminate the risk of transmission entirely, as HPV can be present on parts of skin not covered by a condom or dam. Given the uncertainty around whether HPV has cleared from your system or is simply inactive, you and your partner will have to come to an agreement about what kind of risk you are comfortable with. As part of this process, you could experiment with different kinds of condoms — textures, colors, flavors — and make it a fun experience each time you put one on.

Overall, it may be a good idea to meet with your health care provider to go over your options, as they can help you decide whether vaccination or other medications are appropriate for you and your specific case. Again, compliments to you for your concern about your own health and your partner's.

I hope this information helps!

Last updated Jul 15, 2022
Originally published Mar 23, 1995

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