Genital Warts at a Glance
- A common sexually transmitted disease (STD)
- Spread easily by skin-to-skin contact
- Treatment available for genital warts symptoms
- There are ways to reduce your risk of getting genital warts
We all want to protect ourselves and each other from STDs like genital warts. Learning more about genital warts is an important first step.
Here are some of the most common questions we hear people ask about genital warts. We hope you find the answers helpful, whether you think you may have genital warts, have been diagnosed with them, or are just curious about them.
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What Are Genital Warts?
Genital warts are growths on the skin of the genital area and around the anus. They are caused by certain types of the human papilloma virus (HPV).
There are more than 100 types of HPV. Some types of HPV produce warts on different parts of the body, like plantar warts on the feet and common hand warts. Some can lead to certain cancers — these are called high-risk types of HPV. And some produce genital warts.
Most genital warts are caused by one of two types of HPV — types 6 and 11. Genital warts can appear in the mouth or genital area — the vulva, vagina, cervix, rectum, anus, penis, or scrotum. They are passed from one person to another by skin-to-skin contact, usually during sex play.
Genital warts are very common. Between 500,000 and 1 million people get genital warts every year.
What Are the Symptoms of Genital Warts?
Common genital warts symptoms are flesh-colored, soft-to-the-touch bumps on the skin that may look like the surface of a cauliflower. They often grow in more than one place and may cluster in large masses. Genital warts usually are painless, but they may itch.
You might see or feel genital warts in your vagina or on your vulva, cervix, penis, anus, or urethra. It is also possible — but not very likely — to have them in your mouth, on the lips, tongue, and palate, or in the throat.
Genital warts usually develop 6 weeks to 6 months after infection. But it may take longer.
They often grow more rapidly during pregnancy or when a person's immune system is weakened by
- Hodgkin's disease
- taking anti-rejection drugs after an organ transplant
Are Genital Warts Dangerous?
You may find genital warts to be unpleasant or mildly uncomfortable, but they are not dangerous. They can, however, cause sores and bleeding — which can increase your risk of HIV infection.
Genital Warts and Cancer
Many people may worry that their genital warts will place them at risk of cancer. But the types of HPV that cause genital warts do not cause cancer.
It's not unusual to have more than one HPV infection at a time. And warts may be a sign of infection from more serious types of HPV. Women can test for more serious types of HPV by getting regular Pap tests.
Genital Warts and Pregnancy
Women with genital warts can have healthy pregnancies. But a pregnant woman should tell her nurse or doctor if she's ever had genital warts. That way she can get any treatment she might need. Sometimes genital warts grow more quickly during pregnancy. A provider can remove warts before birth to keep them from bleeding during delivery.
Very rarely, a woman can pass genital warts to her newborn during vaginal delivery. This can result in serious medical conditions for the newborn, including problems with breathing and severe, sometimes fatal, developmental disabilities. A cesarean section may be needed to prevent passing an infection during delivery or if warts are likely to bleed heavily during delivery.
How Can I Know If I Have Genital Warts?
Only your health care provider can correctly diagnose genital warts. In women, genital warts are often seen during a pelvic exam. Unfortunately, men are not usually examined for sexually transmitted diseases, unless they complain of symptoms.
Women and men with more than one sex partner — or whose partners have more than one sex partner — should have regular exams for STDs, including genital warts.
Not All Bumps Are Warts
Other infections and conditions are often mistaken for genital warts symptoms. That's why it's important to have your bumps checked out by a health care provider. Hemorrhoids, syphilis, skin tags, pearly penile papules, and other conditions can have symptoms that seem like genital warts symptoms. Very rarely, certain skin cancers can also look like genital warts.
Is There a Treatment for Genital Warts?
Very often our bodies fight off the virus. If so, the warts go away with no treatment. That's why a lot of people choose to just wait for the warts to go away on their own. But you may choose to get genital warts treatments if the warts are uncomfortable, get in the way of sex play, or you don't like the way they look.
Warts can be removed with various genital warts treatments. Talk with your health care provider to decide which treatment might be best for you.
There are several medicines that can be applied directly to genital warts, depending on where they are located. Some prescription genital warts treatments can be used at home. Other treatments must be applied by your health care provider. Some genital warts treatments can cause discomfort. And some cannot be used during pregnancy.
Genital warts also may be removed by freezing them. This is called cryotherapy. They may be burned off. This is called electrocauterization. Or they may be removed with surgery or with lasers. In some cases, they are treated with injections of interferon, another type of medication.
Like all medications, genital warts treatments have risks and side effects. Your health care provider can explain them to you and help you deal with the side effects of your treatment.
After having genital warts treatment
- Keep the area clean.
- Don't scratch the treated area.
- Wash your hands after touching the warts.
- Avoid sexual contact if it is uncomfortable.
- Apply cold compresses to relieve discomfort, or you may take acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin).
For most people, the first series of genital warts treatment is successful in removing the warts. But even though the warts go away with treatment, they may return. This is because the treatments can remove the warts, but they don't cure the virus that causes warts.
For some people, the warts may come back several months after treatment — especially if they smoke cigarettes. And for some people, the warts continue to return, even after long periods of time.
Where Can I Get Checked for Genital Warts? Where Can I Get Treatment?
Staff at your local Planned Parenthood health center, many other clinics, health departments, and private health care providers can diagnose genital warts and help you get any treatment you may need or want.
How Are Genital Warts Spread?
Genital warts are spread by skin-to-skin contact — usually during vaginal, anal, or oral sex play. There is a chance genital warts can be spread even when no warts are visible. Treatment seems to lower the chance of passing the infection to a sex partner.
How Can I Prevent Getting or Spreading Genital Warts?
- Get the HPV vaccine. It can protect against the two HPV types that cause 90 percent of all cases of genital warts.
- Abstain from sex play that involves skin-to-skin contact.
- If you choose to have vaginal or anal intercourse, use condoms every time. They can reduce the risk of genital warts. They are not as effective against HPV as they are against other infections such as chlamydia and HIV. But they greatly reduce the risk of infection. You can use condoms, Sheer Glyde dams, dental dams, or plastic wrap during oral sex to further reduce your risk.
- Stop smoking. Smokers may be more likely to develop genital warts than nonsmokers. They are also more likely to have warts recur.
Find Dr. Cullins' Answers to Common Sexual Health Questions
Q&A with Dr. Cullins