What are genital warts?
Genital warts are small, flat, flesh-colored bumps or tiny, cauliflower-like bumps.
Genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). There are many kinds of HPV. Not all of them cause genital warts. HPV is associated with cancer of the vulva, anus, and penis. However, it’s important to note that HPV infection doesn’t always lead to cancer, and that genital warts are not cancer.
Symptoms of genital warts
The symptoms of genital warts are the actual warts themselves. In men, genital warts can grow on the penis, near the anus, or between the penis and the scrotum. In women, genital warts may grow on the vulva and perineal area, in the vagina, and on the cervix (the opening to the uterus or womb). Genital warts vary in size and may even be so small that you can’t see them.
What causes genital warts?
HPV causes genital warts. HPV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). The most common way to get HPV is by having oral, vaginal, or anal sex with someone who is infected with HPV.
Just because you can’t see warts on your partner doesn’t mean they don’t have HPV. The infection can have a long incubation period. This means that months can pass between the time a person is infected with the virus and the time a person notices genital warts. Sometimes, the warts can take years to develop. In women, the warts may be where you can’t see them, such as inside the body on the surface of the cervix.
How are genital warts diagnosed?
If you notice warts in your genital area, see your doctor. Your doctor may be able to diagnose the warts just by examining you. For women, a Pap test can help detect changes on the cervix that are caused by genital warts.
Can genital warts be prevented or avoided?
The only sure way to prevent genital warts is to not have sex. If you are sexually active, having sex only with a partner who isn’t infected with HPV and who only has sex with you will lower your risk of getting genital warts.
Using a condom may help prevent you from getting HPV, but condoms are not 100% effective. They do not cover all the affected skin.
What about the HPV vaccine?
There are two types of HPV vaccine. Both types help protect against the HPV strains that are most likely to cause cervical cancer. One type also helps protect against the HPV strains that are most likely to cause genital warts.
Routine HPV vaccination is recommended for the following groups of people:
- Boys and girls ages 11 to 21
- Women ages 22 to 26
- Men ages 22 to 26 years of age who have a compromised immune system
- Gay and bisexual men
In certain circumstances, your doctor may recommend you receive the vaccination up to age 45.
The vaccines are given as shots (injections in the upper arm) and require 2-3 doses, depending on your age. The vaccine is most effective if children receive it before they start having sex.
Genital wart treatment
Genital warts must be treated by your doctor. Do not try to treat the warts yourself.
The warts can be removed, but the viral infection itself can’t be cured. The virus lives inside your skin. This is why the warts often return after they have been removed. You may need to have them removed more than once.
How are genital warts removed?
One way to remove the warts is to freeze them. This is called cryotherapy. The warts can also be taken off with a laser.
A treatment called the loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP) can be used to remove the warts. With this method of removal, a sharp instrument shaped like a loop is passed underneath the wart and the wart is cut out of the skin.
Special chemicals can be used to remove the warts. These chemicals dissolve warts in the genital area. You may need to apply them to the area a number of times over a period of several weeks before the treatment is complete.
Chemicals you can buy at the store to remove warts from your hands should not be used for genital warts. They can make your genital skin very sore.
Living with genital warts
If you have genital warts, talk to your doctor. It is important they treat your warts. Genital warts can grow if you do not get them treated. If you are sexually active, you also risk infecting your partner.
Certain kinds of HPV can cause abnormal cells to grow on the cervix. Sometimes, these cells can become cancerous if left untreated. Other kinds of HPV can cause cancer of the vulva, vagina, anus, or penis.
Questions to ask your doctor
- What treatment is best for me?
- Is there any way I can keep my boyfriend/girlfriend from getting genital warts?
- Is there a special hygiene plan I need to follow while I’m being treated?
- Will my genital warts come back?
- Will my infection cause any future problems?
- How long will my treatment last?
- How often will I need to see my doctor?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.