Genital warts are fleshy growths that develop around the genitals or anus. They result from one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the United States.
Genital warts are caused by infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV).
There is no cure for this infection, but there are various ways of removing the warts. Most methods require a person to see a healthcare provider.
This article describes the symptoms, causes, and treatments of genital warts.
Genital warts are small growths that develop around the genitals or anus. They are also known as venereal warts, or condylomata acuminata.
The warts form separately or in clusters. They may be small, at 5 millimeters or less, though in some cases they develop into large masses. The warts are usually skin-colored or somewhat darker.
Genital warts develop on the skin and mucous membranes in the genital or anal area.
- In males, this includes the penis, scrotum, and anus.
- In females, this includes the vulva, the internal surface of the vagina, the cervix, and the anus.
Genital warts are not usually painful, but they can cause itching, redness, or discomfort, and they may bleed. Learn about the duration of outbreaks here.
HPV infection does not always cause symptoms — some people have the infection without developing warts. For this reason, it may be impossible to tell whether a person has HPV.
If the warts do appear, it may be 3 weeks, several months, or even years after the person has developed the infection.
Genital warts are benign, or noncancerous.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that infection with HPV, the virus that causes genital warts, is the most common STI in the U.S.
That said, only 10% of people who come into contact with HPV develop genital warts, and many people have HPV infection but no symptoms.
The CDC estimate that 1 in 100 sexually active adults in the U.S. have genital warts at any one time.
Treatments can remove genital warts, but they may return.
There is no cure for the infection that causes them, but the body may clear the infection over time.
Creams and lotions can eliminate the warts over time, and there are various procedures to remove them.
Genital wart outbreaks usually resolve without treatment. However, in some cases, the warts grow or multiply without intervention. Also, treating outbreaks of these warts can greatly reduce the risk of transmission.
People should not apply treatments designed to eliminate warts on the hands or feet to their genitals.
Treatments for genital warts include:
- Topical medication: A person applies a cream or liquid directly to the warts for several days each week for several weeks.
- Cryotherapy: A healthcare professional applies liquid nitrogen to the area, causing blisters to form around the warts, which eventually fall off — sometimes after several sessions.
- Electrocautery: After administering a local anesthetic, a healthcare professional uses an electric current to remove the wart.
- Laser treatment: A healthcare professional removes the warts with an intensive beam of light.
- Surgery: The person receives a local anesthetic before a surgeon removes the warts.
The treatments are not painful but may cause soreness or irritation for a few days, and over-the-counter pain relief medications can help.
It may take weeks or months for the treatments to work. For some people, the treatments do not work. Others may find that the warts return.
Also, a healthcare provider may use more than one treatment at a time.
They may warn against using soaps, creams, or lotions that may irritate the skin.
Sexually active people can reduce the risk of developing genital warts in several ways.
Using barrier protection, such as condoms, reduces but does not completely eliminate the risk.
Getting the HPV vaccine can prevent a person from contracting certain types of the virus including those that can cause genital warts or cancer. Officials have approved this vaccine for use in people up to the age of 45.
It is important for sexually active people to keep in mind that a person can transmit HPV without knowing that they have it — without the presence of genital warts.
Having regular STI screenings is key, especially before contact with a new partner.
Genital warts, like other warts, are caused by certain types of HPV. There are more than 100 different types of the virus, but only types 6 and 11 cause genital warts.
Genital warts are sexually transmitted.
A person can contract or transmit an HPV infection through skin-to-skin genital contact, such as during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Some people have the infection but experience no symptoms and show no signs.
The following increase the risk of developing genital warts:
A doctor can usually recognize genital warts during a physical exam. This may involve looking inside the vagina or anus.
Rarely, the doctor may take a biopsy, a small skin sample, of a wart for further testing.
Because the warts often take time to develop after the person contracts the infection, the doctor may ask the person to return for a follow-up check.
Some genital warts are so small that doctors can only detect them with a tool called a colposcope. A colposcopic exam of the cervix and vagina or a Pap smear can help doctors diagnose these warts.
A person should go for a sexual health checkup if they:
- have had sexual contact with a new partner
- suspect that they have genital warts
- believe that they have any other STI
Genital warts usually go away on their own, but they can come back, even after treatment.
While there is no cure for the virus that causes these warts, the body may clear the virus over time.
Removing the warts can help prevent transmission, but these techniques are not always effective. A healthcare professional can attempt to remove them in various ways, or a person can try topical creams at home.