Genital Warts (Human Papillomavirus)
What are genital warts?
Genital warts are skin growths in the groin, genital, or anal areas. They can be different sizes and shapes. Some look like flat white patches, and others are bumpy, like tiny bunches of cauliflower. Sometimes you can't see the warts at all.
What causes them?
Genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Over 100 types of HPV have been found. Some types cause genital warts. Types 6 and 11 cause most genital warts.
HPV and genital warts can be spread through sex or skin-to-skin genital contact with someone who has the virus. The virus can be spread to or from the genitals, anus, mouth, or throat during sexual activities. You can spread the virus even if you don't have symptoms.
What are the symptoms?
Genital warts can be different sizes and shapes. They may be large, or they may be too small to be seen. They may appear alone or in groups. Warts may look like tiny bunches of cauliflower or like flat, white areas that are very hard to see.
Visible warts appear only during active infection.
Genital warts may appear in the groin, on and around the genitals, in the urethra, or in the rectum or anus.
How are they diagnosed?
A doctor checks for genital warts by looking closely at the genital and anal areas. The doctor may ask you questions about your symptoms and risk factors. Risk factors are things that make you more likely to get an infection. Sometimes the doctor takes a sample of tissue from a wart for testing.
How are genital warts treated?
There are ways to treat genital warts. But the warts may come back because treatment doesn't kill the HPV infection that causes them.
Talk to your doctor if you want to treat visible genital warts. The warts usually go away with no treatment, but they may also spread. Some people decide to treat them because of the symptoms or because of how the warts look. But if you don't have symptoms and are not worried about how the warts look, you can wait and see if they go away.
If you decide to treat genital warts, talk to your doctor. There are medicines that you or your doctor can put on the warts. Or your doctor can remove them with lasers or surgery or by freezing them off.
Surgery to remove genital warts may be done when:
- Medicine treatment has failed and the removal of warts is thought to be needed.
- Warts are large.
How can you prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs)?
It's easier to prevent an STI than it is to treat one:
- Limit your sex partners. The safest sex is with one partner who has sex only with you.
- Talk with your partner or partners about STIs before you have sex. Find out if they are at risk for an STI. Remember that it's possible to have an STI and not know it.
- Wait to have sex with new partners until you've each been tested.
- Don't have sex if you have symptoms of an infection or if you are being treated for an STI.
- Use a condom (a male or female condom) every time you have sex. Condoms are the only form of birth control that also helps prevent STIs.
- If you're pregnant, be extra careful. Some STIs can be passed to your baby during delivery.
Vaccines are available for some STIs, such as HPV. Ask your doctor for more information.
Experts recommend that children age 11 or 12 get the HPV vaccine, but the vaccine can be given from age 9 to 26. If you are age 27 to 45 and have not been vaccinated for HPV, ask your doctor if getting the vaccine is right for you.
Children ages 9 to 14 get the vaccine in a series of two shots. Some children may need a third dose. Anyone age 15 years and older gets the vaccine as a three-dose series. For the vaccine to work best, all shots in the series must be given.
Current as of: November 22, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Sarah Marshall MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kevin C. Kiley MD - Obstetrics and Gynecology