What Are They?
Genital warts are warts that are located near or in the genital areas. In a female, that means on or near the vulva (the outside genital area), vagina, cervix, or anus. In a male, that means near or on the penis, scrotum, or anus.
Warts appear as bumps or growths. They can be flat or raised, single or many, small or large. They tend to be whitish or flesh colored. They are not always easy to see with the naked eye, and many times a person with genital warts doesn't know that they're there.
Genital warts are caused by a group of viruses called HPV (short for human papillomavirus). There are more than 100 types of HPV. Some of them cause the kind of warts you see on people's hands and feet — these common warts usually are caused by types of viruses that are different from those that cause genital warts.
More than 30 types of HPV cause genital warts. Genital warts can be passed from person to person through intimate sexual contact (vaginal, oral, or anal sex). In some rare cases, genital warts are transmitted from a mother to her baby during childbirth.
HPV infections are common in teens and young adults. As many as 1 in 2 people can have them at some point in their lives. The more sexual partners someone has, the more likely it is that the person will get an HPV infection.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms?
Most HPV infections have no signs or symptoms. So someone can be infected and pass the disease on to another person without knowing. However, some people do get visible warts.
People often don't have any symptoms from genital warts — the warts usually do not hurt or itch, which is one reason why people may not know they have them. Doctors can diagnose warts by examining the skin closely (sometimes with a magnifying glass) and using a special solution to make them easier to see. A Pap smear (a test that is performed during a gynecologic exam) and other tests can help diagnose an HPV infection.
Experts believe that when a wart is present, the virus may be more contagious. But HPV can still be spread even without any visible warts.
How Long Until You See the Symptoms?
A person who has been exposed to genital warts may have warts appear any time from several weeks to several months after exposure. Sometimes warts can take even longer to appear; the virus can live in the body for a very long time without causing any symptoms. Because many people who are infected with HPV don't show any symptoms, anyone having sex should get regular medical checkups and tell their doctor about their sexual history.
What Can Happen?
Sometimes, if left untreated, genital warts may grow bigger and multiply. Often, they go away on their own without treatment — but this doesn't mean people can ignore genital warts. They can spread to other people. And some types of HPV are especially worrisome for girls because they can cause problems with the cervix that may lead to cervical cancer.
Since HPV can have such serious consequences, girls who have had sex should see a gynecologist, who can do a Pap smear and test for changes in the cervix from HPV.
How Are Genital Warts Prevented?
The only surefire way to prevent genital warts is abstinence (the decision not to have sex). Teens who do have sex can get some protection by properly using a latex condom every time they have any form of sexual intercourse (vaginal, oral, or anal sex). Condoms may not give complete protection because the virus can spread from the areas of the genitals not covered by the condom. Condoms also reduce the risk of other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) as well as pregnancy.
The U.S. government has approved a vaccine that protects against some of the strains of HPV that can cause cervical cancer.
How Are They Treated?
There is no cure that will get rid of the HPV virus completely. But treatments can reduce the number of warts — or help them go away faster. When the warts disappear, the HPV virus is still there, though it may not spread as easily.
If you are sexually active, think you might have genital warts, or if you have had a partner who might have genital warts, you need to see your doctor or gynecologist.
Your doctor will do an examination, make a diagnosis, and then provide treatment, if necessary. A number of different treatments might be used depending on where the warts are located, how big they are, and how many there are. Your doctor might put special medications on the warts, or remove them with treatments like laser therapy or chemical "freezing."
Sometimes warts can come back, so you might need to visit the doctor again. Anyone with whom you've had sex also should be checked for genital warts.
Not all bumps on a person's genitals are warts. Some can be pimples, some can be other types of infections or growths. So turn to your doctor for help — he or she can help determine what that bump is and what you can do.
Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: November 2009