Genital warts are fleshy growths that develop around the genitals or anus. They result from an infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV). Treatment can remove them, but they may recur.

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 professional.

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 HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection and a common cause of genital warts.

The warts form separately or in clusters. They may be small, at 5 millimeters or less, though they sometimes develop into large masses. The warts are usually skin-colored or somewhat darker.

Here are some pictures of genital warts.

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, skin discoloration, or discomfort, and they may bleed.

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.

Most HPV infections are noncancerous. However, in rare cases, HPV coinfections can cause head and neck cancers.

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 a small amount 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. has genital warts at any one time.

In around 80% of cases, HPV clears spontaneously within 18-24 months. Treatment can reduce the visible symptoms within weeks or months. However, removing warts from the skin does not necessarily reduce transmission risk.

However, around 10-20% of people with HPV will have the infection for life. During this time, they may not experience any visible symptoms.

Learn about the duration of outbreaks here.

Treatments can remove genital warts, but they may return.

Genital wart outbreaks usually resolve without treatment. However, in some cases, warts grow or multiply without intervention.

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 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 warts with an intensive beam of light.
  • Surgery: The person receives a local anesthetic before a surgeon removes warts.

The treatments 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 professional may use more than one treatment. They may warn against using soaps, creams, or lotions that may irritate the skin.

Do home remedies work for genital warts? Find out here.

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.

STI screening cannot detect HPV, but this is still key to overall sexual health, especially before contact with a new partner.

Genital warts are sexually transmitted. Genital warts, like other warts, are caused by certain types of HPV. There are more than 200 different types of the virus. In the majority of cases, types 6 and 11 of HPV cause genital warts, but this is not always the case.

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:

  • having sexual contact without using barrier protection
  • smoking

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 warts often take time to develop after contracting 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 independently, 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.

A healthcare professional can attempt to remove them in various ways, or a person can try prescription topical creams at home.