Genital warts are flesh colored bumps that can appear on or around the genitals. Knowing what they look like can help a person receive prompt treatment.

The sexually transmitted infection (STI) human papillomavirus (HPV) is what causes them.

Once a person has genital warts, HPV can transmit to others, even if the person has no symptoms.

This article will cover what genital warts look like, as well as some causes and treatment options. It will also discuss outlook, some similar conditions, and when to contact a doctor.

Genital warts can appear on or around the genitals. Possible locations include the following:

  • vulva
  • vagina
  • penis
  • scrotum
  • cervix
  • anus
  • thighs

These warts can also appear in the mouth or throat if someone has had oral sex with a person who has them.

Genital warts look similar to the warts that a person might get on their hands or elsewhere on the body. This is because various strains of HPV cause all warts, including genital warts.

Genital warts can appear weeks, months, or even years after an HPV infection.

Some people with HPV have no symptoms at all. For this reason, the fact that a person has not had recent sexual contact does not exclude the possibility of having genital warts.

Genital warts do not cause sores, bleeding, or open wounds unless a person scratches them or they catch on something.

Discolored marks, rashes, or bleeding on or around the genitals usually indicate the presence of something else, such as herpes or a skin infection.

Some symptoms that suggest that the bumps on the genitals might be genital warts include the following:

  • The bumps are skin colored or slightly darker.
  • The bumps appear as either a single bump or in clusters that may resemble a cauliflower.
  • The bumps may be rough, smooth, flat, or raised.
  • The bumps may itch, but they do not usually hurt.

HPV causes genital warts. This is the most common STI in the United States.

The strain of HPV that causes genital warts spreads through skin-to-skin contact with someone who has it, often during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. However, genital warts can still spread without penetration and if a person does not have symptoms.

Any anal, vaginal, or penile contact may spread HPV. This can happen even if a person has no HPV symptoms.

Condoms do not fully protect against HPV, since they do not cover all of the areas of the body that may spread the infection. They can, however, reduce the chance of HPV spreading.

Genital warts are not dangerous, though a person might not like how they look.

A different strain of HPV from the one that causes genital warts may increase the risk of cancer. That strain of HPV correlates with a higher risk of certain cancers, including:

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “nearly all cases of cervical cancer can be attributable to HPV infection.”

The strain of HPV that causes genital warts is a low risk strain for cervical cancer, but other HPV strains are higher risk.

People who have genital warts may also have a strain of HPV that increases their risk of cancer.

Some people with genital warts say that they feel similar to tiny, bumpy cauliflowers.

The outer surface of the warts may feel smooth or rough. The warts may grow or change texture a little before they clear up.

These warts do not usually hurt, but the skin under the wart may feel itchy. If the warts catch on something, such as underwear, they may hurt.

Genital warts will not bleed if a person does not disturb them. However, friction from walking or sex can irritate or tear the warts. Warts may open, bleed, or become infected from friction or if they snag on something.

The presence of bumps on or around the genitals does not necessarily mean that a person has HPV.

Some other potential causes of genital bumps include:

  • cysts or other growths under the skin
  • razor burn and other forms of skin irritation, such as heat rash
  • skin infections from bacteria, yeast, or other microbes
  • tumors, including both benign tumors and cancerous growths
  • other STIs, such as herpes or syphilis

No test can reliably detect HPV for both sexes. However, in females, doctors can test for HPV during cervical cancer screenings with a Pap smear.

For many people, doctors will diagnose the condition based on symptoms, after ruling out other potential conditions.

A person should contact a doctor if they:

  • have genital warts or other genital bumps
  • have genital pain
  • want a doctor to test for other STIs

Certain tests can look for cancer related to HPV. A doctor may recommend undergoing regular Pap smears or other tests based on a person’s history of genital warts.

Because it is impossible to self-diagnose HPV, it is important to contact a doctor about any unusual or new growths on the genitals, even if the person thinks that they have had no HPV exposure.

It is possible to vaccinate both females and males against some types of HPV, including those that cause most cervical cancers.

Experts usually recommend that people receive the vaccine before they become sexually active and have exposure to any strains of HPV. However, some younger adults may still benefit from vaccination.

Anyone who is interested in having themselves or their child vaccinated should consult a doctor.

HPV is a chronic virus with no cure. This means that a person may periodically develop genital warts for the rest of their life.

Not all people with HPV develop genital warts, however, and even those with a history of wart outbreaks may never again have another outbreak.

There are treatments available for genital warts. For example, a doctor may recommend prescription creams to clear up the infection. If the warts become infected or cause a skin infection, they may also recommend an antibiotic.

The cancers that HPV increases the risk of are also treatable. So, a person should contact a doctor early about any symptoms of cancer or unusual growths.

Females with HPV may need more frequent cervical cancer screenings.

HPV is a common infection, and many people who contract the virus never know that they have it.

People with genital warts should assume that they are contagious and discuss risk and risk mitigation strategies with their partners.

A doctor can help with assessing risk and recommending treatment options.