Genital warts are soft growths that appear on the genitals. Genital warts are a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by certain strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV). These skin growths can cause pain, discomfort, and itching. They are especially dangerous for women because some types of HPV can also cause cancer of the cervix and vulva.
HPV is the most prevalent of all STIs. This makes men and women who are sexually active vulnerable to complications of HPV, such as genital warts. In fact, approximately 360,000 people develop genital warts each year. Protection and treatment are essential in preventing this infection.
Genital warts are transmitted through sexual activity. You may not begin to develop warts for several weeks after infection.
The warts are not always visible to the human eye. They may be very small and the color of the skin or slightly darker. The top of the growths may resemble a cauliflower and may feel smooth or slightly bumpy to the touch. An infected person may have a cluster of warts, or just one wart.
Genital warts on males may appear on the following areas:
- inside or around the anus
Genital warts in females may appear on the following area:
- inside of the vagina or anus
- outside of the vagina or anus
Genital warts may also appear on the lips, mouth, tongue, or throat of a person who has had oral sexual contact with an infected person.
Even if you cannot see genital warts, they may still cause symptoms, such as:
- vaginal discharge
If genital warts spread or become enlarged, the condition can be uncomfortable or even painful.
Most cases of genital warts are caused by HPV. And there are more than 70 types of HPV that specifically affect the genitals. The HPV virus is highly transmittable through skin-to-skin contact, which is why it is considered a STI.
In fact, HPV is so common that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that most sexually active people get it at some point — the key difference is whether the virus leads to complications like genital warts.
Genital warts are caused by different strains of HPV that cause warts on your hands or other parts of the body that don’t include the genital. A wart can’t spread from someone’s hand to the genitals, and vice versa.
Any sexually active person is at risk for HPV. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), nearly half of people who have sex have had some type of HPV infection. However, genital warts are common for people who meet the following criteria:
- are under the age of 30
- have immune system weaknesses
- have a history of child abuse
- if their mother had the virus during childbirth
HPV is the main cause of cancer in the cervix and can also cause precancerous changes to the cells of the cervix, or dysplasia.
Other types of HPV may also cause cancer of the vulva, which are the external genital organs of women, as well as penile and anal cancer.
Your doctor will perform a physical examination of any areas where you suspect warts may be occurring. Because warts can be deep inside the body for women, your physician may need to perform a pelvic examination. They may apply a mild acidic solution, which helps to make the warts more visible.
A doctor can also perform a Pap smear, which involves taking a swab of the area to obtain cells from your cervix. These can then be tested for the presence of HPV. Certain types of HPV may cause abnormal results on a Pap smear, which may indicate precancerous changes. If your doctor detects these abnormalities, you may need more frequent screenings to monitor any changes.
Your doctor will also ask questions about your health and sexual history. This includes symptoms you have experienced and any times you have engaged in unprotected sex, including oral sex.
If you are concerned you may have contracted a form of HPV known to cause cervical cancer, your physician can perform a DNA test. This determines what strain of HPV you have in your system.
While visible genital warts often go away with time, the virus cannot be eliminated once it is in your bloodstream. This means you may have several outbreaks over the course of your life. This makes managing symptoms important because you want to prevent transmitting the virus to others. Genital warts can be passed on to others even when there are no visible warts or other symptoms.
You may wish to treat genital warts to relieve painful symptoms or to minimize their appearance. You cannot treat genital warts with over-the-counter (OTC) wart removers or treatments.
Your doctor may prescribe topical wart treatments that might include:
If visible warts do not go away with time, you may require surgery to remove them. Your physician can remove the warts through:
- electrocautery, or burning warts with electric currents
- cryosurgery, or freezing warts
- laser treatments
- excision, or cutting off warts
- Interferon injections
Women who have been diagnosed with genital warts may need to have Pap smears every 3 to 6 months after their initial treatment to monitor any changes in the cervix. This is because certain types of HPV that cause genital warts are also associated with cervical cancer and precancerous changes in the cervix.
You should not use OTC treatments meant for hand warts on genital warts. Hand and genital warts are caused by different strains of HPV. Using the wrong treatments may do more harm than good.
Some home remedies are touted as helpful in treating genital warts, but there is little evidence to support them. Always consult your doctor before trying a home remedy.
Genital warts are a common symptom of HPV infection that can be uncomfortable or painful. They can disappear over time, but treatment is essential in preventing their return and possible complications.
Talking to your partner about genital warts can be difficult, but it is an important conversation to have. Being open about your condition can help you protect your partner from getting the infection and resulting warts.
An HPV vaccine called Gardasil can protect men and women from the most common HPV strains that cause genital warts, and can also protect against strains of HPV that are linked to cervical cancer. A vaccine called Cervarix is also available. This vaccine protects against cervical cancer, but not against genital warts.
Men and women up to age 26 can receive the HPV vaccine. It can also be given as early as age 9, and comes in a round of three different shots. These vaccines should be given before becoming sexually active, as they are most effective before a person is exposed to HPV. Using a condom every time you have sex can also reduce your risk of contracting genital warts.