What are genital warts?
Genital warts are a type of sexually transmitted disease (STD). The disease causes warts (small bumps or growth ) to form in and around the genitals and rectum. Certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV) cause genital warts.
Some warts are very small. Still, you can usually feel or see them. Healthcare providers may call genital warts condyloma; STDs are also called sexually transmitted infections (STIs). You can give genital warts to other people.
Where do you get genital warts?
Genital warts can infect the:
- Groin (area between the stomach and thigh).
- Inside and outside of the anus.
- Lips, mouth, tongue or throat.
- Penis and scrotum (the sac that contains the testicles).
- Vagina (including inside the vagina), vulva, vaginal lips (labia minora and labia majora) and cervix (tissue that connects the vagina and uterus).
How common are genital warts?
An estimated 400,000 people — most of them in their late teens and twenties — get genital warts every year. The virus that causes these warts, HPV, is the most common STD. Approximately 79 million Americans have HPV. There are many different types of HPV. Not all cause genital warts.
Who might get genital warts?
Genital warts affect all genders. It’s most common in teenagers and young adults. Men are slightly more at risk. Your chances of getting genital warts increase if you:
- Don’t use condoms while having sex.
- Have multiple sexual partners.
Are genital warts contagious?
Yes, genital warts and the virus that causes them are both highly contagious. There isn’t a cure for HPV. Once you have the virus, you’re always infectious. Even if you don’t have symptoms like genital warts, or you have the warts treated and removed, you can still infect another person with HPV and genital warts.
Symptoms and Causes
What causes genital warts?
Certain types of HPV cause this STD. Genital warts spread through skin-to-skin contact during sex. A different virus causes warts on your hands and feet. You can’t get genital warts by touching yourself or someone else with a hand or foot that has warts.
Genital warts spread through:
- Intercourse, including anal, vaginal-penile and vaginal-vaginal.
- Genital touching (skin-to-skin contact without ejaculation).
- Giving oral sex to someone who has HPV or genital warts.
- Receiving oral sex from someone who has HPV or who has genital warts on the mouth, lips or tongue.
How soon do genital warts appear after infection?
Some people develop genital warts within weeks after infection. Often, though, it can take months or years for warts to appear. For this reason, it can be difficult to pinpoint when you got infected.
It’s also possible to have the virus and not get genital warts. You might not know if you have warts inside the anus or elsewhere in the body. If you don’t have symptoms, you may unknowingly infect others with the virus.
What are the symptoms of genital warts?
Warts look like rough, skin-colored growths. Genital warts often have a bumpy cauliflower look, but some are flat. Genital warts aren’t usually painful. Occasionally, they cause:
- Mild bleeding.
- Burning sensation.
- Genital itching or irritation.
Diagnosis and Tests
How are genital warts diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider can diagnose external genital warts by looking at them. Internal warts are more challenging to diagnose. You may get these tests:
- Pelvic exam: A woman may get a Pap test as part of a pelvic exam to check for cervical changes caused by genital warts. Your provider may also perform a colposcopy to examine and biopsy the vagina and cervix.
- Blood tests: Your provider may test for other STDs often associated with genital warts. These STDs include gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia.
- Anal exam: Your provider uses a device called an anoscope to look inside the anus for warts.
- Biopsy: Your provider may perform a biopsy (cutting out and removing a tiny piece, about the size of the tip of a pencil) when in doubt about diagnosis.
Management and Treatment
How are genital warts managed or treated?
Genital warts can go away on their own. Or they may get larger or multiply. There are different ways to remove genital warts. You may need several treatments to get rid of warts. For most of them, you’ll receive an anesthetic first to numb the treatment area. During treatment, you should abstain from sexual contact.
Your healthcare provider may use one of these methods to treat genital warts:
- Electrocautery: An electric current burns away warts.
- Freezing: During cryotherapy, your provider applies liquid nitrogen to freeze and destroy warts.
- Laser treatment: A laser light destroys tiny blood vessels inside warts, cutting off their blood supply.
- Loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP): With LEEP, your provider uses an electrically charged wire loop to remove warts. A provider may use this method to remove warts on a woman’s cervix.
- Topical (skin) medicine: Once a week for several weeks, you apply a prescription chemical solution to the warts. The chemical causes blisters to form under the warts, stopping blood flow. In some cases, your provider may apply the solution.
- Your provider applies the topical TCA solution in the office. Your provider may also provide a prescription for a topical medical when appropriate eg. Imiquimod ( Aldara) that patient self-administers at home for some weeks as directed.
- Surgery: Your provider may surgically cut out warts that are large or don’t respond to other treatments.
Can I get genital warts more than once?
Yes. There’s no cure for HPV, the virus that causes warts. As a result, you can get genital warts over and over again.
What are the complications of genital warts?
Genital warts on the cervix or inside the vagina can cause cervical changes (dysplasia) that can lead to cervical cancer. The warts cause these changes, not HPV.
There are other types of HPV that increase cancer risk. The HPV strains that cause cancer are not the same ones that cause genital warts.
How do genital warts affect pregnancy?
If you have an active outbreak of genital warts while pregnant, your increased hormone levels may cause the warts to bleed, get larger or multiply. Rarely, these complications happen:
- A large wart or mass of warts blocks the birth canal. You may need to deliver via cesarean section.
- HPV passes from mother to baby, causing warts to form inside a baby’s airways. This condition, called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis, is very rare.
Is there a vaccine for genital warts?
The HPV vaccine can protect against certain types of HPV, including the ones that cause genital warts and certain cancers. There are more than 100 different types of HPV . Even if you already have the type of HPV that causes genital warts, the vaccine could still protect you from other strains.
Recent CDC and FDA guidance recommends that men and women up to 45 years of age get vaccinated to protect against HPV. HPV is the most common STD and can cause certain cancers and genital warts. More than 14 million new HPV infections occur in the US each year. Vaccination starts as early as age 9 ( most people initiate between age 11-12 years)
How can I prevent genital warts?
If you’re sexually active, you can take these steps to protect yourself from getting or spreading HPV, genital warts and other STDs:
- Use condoms.
- Get the HPV vaccine.
- Get routine testing and any needed treatment for STDs.
- Tell your sexual partners if you have HPV or genital warts so they can get tested and treated.
- Be monogamous with one sexual partner or limit your number of partners.
Outlook / Prognosis
What is the prognosis (outlook) for people with genital warts?
Genital warts and HPV are common STDs. These types of warts, and the HPV types that cause them, don’t increase cancer risk. Some people have genital warts just once, while others have recurring outbreaks. Treatment can get rid of the warts, but it can’t cure them or HPV. You’ll always be infectious and need to practice safe sex with your partners.
When should I call the doctor?
You should call your healthcare provider if you experience:
- Genital irritation or itching.
- Painful intercourse.
- Painful urination (dysuria).
- Unusual or foul-smelling penile or vaginal discharge.
- Vaginal or penile redness, soreness or swelling.
What questions should I ask my doctor?
If you have genital warts, you may want to ask your healthcare provider:
- What is the best treatment for me?
- Will warts come back after treatment?
- What’s the best way to avoid getting another STD?
- How can I protect my partner from getting HPV or genital warts?
- Am I at risk for cervical cancer? If so, what steps can I take to protect my health?
- Should I look out for signs of complications?
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Thousands of people get genital warts every year, and thousands more have the virus that causes them. Genital warts may not appear until months — sometimes years — after infection. Once you know you have genital warts and HPV, you should share this information with your sexual partners. Your healthcare provider can offer suggestions for preventing the spread of this STD. You can also take steps to lower your risk of getting other STDs.
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