What are genital warts?
Genital warts are a type of sexually transmitted infection (STI) that causes warts (small bumps or growths) to form in and around your genitals and rectum. Certain strains of human papillomavirus (HPV) cause genital warts. While there’s no cure for HPV itself, you can receive treatment for genital warts. You can give genital warts to other people through vaginal, anal or oral sex.
Where can you get genital warts?
Genital warts can infect your:
- Groin area.
- Penis and scrotum.
- Vagina (including inside of your vagina), vulva, vaginal lips (labia minora and labia majora) and cervix.
- Lips, mouth, tongue or throat.
Who might get genital warts?
Genital warts affect all genders. It’s most common in teenagers and young adults. People assigned male at birth (AMAB) are slightly more at risk. Your chances of getting genital warts increase if you:
- Don’t use condoms or dental dams while having sex.
- Have multiple sexual partners.
How common are genital warts?
An estimated 400,000 people — most of them in their late teens and 20s — get genital warts every year. The virus that causes these warts, HPV, is the most common STI. Approximately 79 million Americans have HPV. There are many different types of HPV. Not all types of HPV cause genital warts. HPV 6 and HPV 11 are the two strains that cause genital warts.
Are genital warts contagious?
Yes, genital warts and the virus that causes them (HPV) are both contagious. There isn’t a cure for HPV. Once you have the virus, you’re always infectious (you can always spread it to others). Even if you don’t have symptoms like visible genital warts, or you have the warts removed, you can still infect another person with HPV and genital warts.
Symptoms and Causes
What causes genital warts?
Certain types of HPV cause genital warts. Genital warts spread through skin-to-skin contact during sex. A different strain of HPV causes the type of warts you find on other parts of your body. You can’t get genital warts by touching yourself or someone else with a wart on your hands or feet.
Genital warts spread through:
- Intercourse, including anal, vaginal-penile and vaginal-vaginal.
- Genital touching (skin-to-skin contact without ejaculation).
- Giving oral sex to someone who has HPV or genital warts.
- Receiving oral sex from someone who has HPV or who has genital warts on their mouth, lips or tongue.
It’s important to note that you can also have the type of HPV that causes genital warts but never actually develop genital warts. This means you can pass HPV to your partner and they could develop genital warts. This is also why it can be complicated to figure out which partner gave you genital warts.
What are the symptoms of genital warts?
Warts look like rough, skin-colored or whitish-grey growths on your skin. Genital warts often have a bumpy cauliflower look, but some are flat. Genital warts aren’t usually painful. Occasionally, they cause:
- Mild bleeding.
- Burning sensation.
- Genital itching or irritation.
Some warts are very small. Still, you can typically feel or see them. Sometimes the warts cluster together in groups or get very large and take on a stalk-like appearance. Most warts begin as tiny, soft growths and may be unnoticeable.
How soon do genital warts appear after infection?
Some people develop genital warts within weeks of sexual contact with someone with HPV. Often, though, it can take months or years for warts to appear. For this reason, it can be difficult to pinpoint when you got genital warts.
It’s also possible to have the virus and not get genital warts. You might not know if you have warts inside your anus or inside your vagina. If you don’t have symptoms, you may unknowingly infect others with the virus.
Diagnosis and Tests
How are genital warts diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider can diagnose external genital warts by looking at them and may request a biopsy to confirm. Internal warts are more challenging to diagnose.
Providers use the following tests to diagnose genital warts:
- Pelvic exam: You may get a Pap test as part of a pelvic exam to check for cervical changes caused by genital warts. Your provider may also perform a colposcopy to examine and biopsy your vagina and cervix.
- Anal exam: Your provider uses a device called an anoscope to look inside your anus for warts.
Contact a healthcare provider if you think you have a genital wart. Other sexually transmitted infections (and even things like moles or skin tags) resemble genital warts. An accurate diagnosis is necessary so you get the right treatment.
Management and Treatment
How are genital warts treated?
Genital warts may go away on their own because your immune system can fight off the infection that causes it. However, they may get larger, multiply or become increasingly uncomfortable. Removing genital warts reduces your chances of spreading the infection since an active outbreak spreads more easily. Remember, treatment for genital warts isn’t a cure.
There are different ways to remove genital warts. You may need several treatments to get rid of them. During treatment, you should abstain from sexual contact.
Your healthcare provider may use one of these methods to treat genital warts:
- Electrocautery: An electric current burns away warts.
- Freezing: During cryotherapy, your provider applies liquid nitrogen to freeze and destroy warts.
- Laser treatment: A laser light destroys tiny blood vessels inside warts, cutting off their blood supply.
- Loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP): With LEEP, your provider uses an electrically charged wire loop to remove warts. A provider may use this method to remove warts on your cervix.
- Topical (skin) medicine: Once a week for several weeks, you apply a prescription chemical solution or cream to the warts. The chemical causes blisters to form under the warts, stopping blood flow. In some cases, your provider may apply the chemical solution at their office. There are also prescription creams your provider will prescribe that you can use at home.
- Surgery: Your provider may surgically cut out warts that are large or don’t respond to other treatments.
Treatment to remove genital warts doesn’t cure you from HPV. Even if you don’t have an active outbreak and your warts were removed, you can still spread HPV.
How long do genital warts last?
Genital warts and HPV is lifelong. That means even with treatment to remove them, the warts may come back.
Everyone responds differently to treatment to remove warts. If you have genital warts, talk to your healthcare provider about what removal option works best for you.
Can I get genital warts more than once?
Yes. There’s no cure for HPV, the virus that causes genital warts. As a result, you can get genital warts over and over again.
What are the complications of genital warts?
Genital warts generally don’t cause any serious health complications. The strain of HPV that cause genital warts is low-risk. The HPV strains that cause cancer aren’t the same ones that cause genital warts.
Are genital warts cancer?
No, genital warts don’t turn into cancer.
How do genital warts affect pregnancy?
If you have an active outbreak of genital warts while pregnant, your hormone levels may cause the warts to bleed, get larger or multiply. Rarely, these complications happen:
- A large wart or mass of warts blocks the birth canal. You may need to deliver via C-section.
- HPV passes to the fetus, causing warts to form inside its airway. This condition, called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis, is very rare.
If you’ve had genital warts in the past and don’t have an active outbreak during pregnancy, you shouldn’t have any problems.
Care at Cleveland Clinic
- Find Your Ob/Gyn
- Make an Appointment
Is there a vaccine for genital warts?
The HPV vaccine can protect against certain types of HPV, including the ones that cause genital warts and certain cancers. There are more than 100 different types of HPV. Even if you already have the type of HPV that causes genital warts, the vaccine could still protect you from other more serious strains.
Recent CDC and FDA guidance recommends that people up to 45 years of age get vaccinated to protect against HPV. HPV is the most common STI and can cause certain cancers and genital warts. More than 14 million new HPV infections occur in the US each year. Check with your healthcare provider to see if you’re eligible for the HPV vaccine.
How can I prevent genital warts?
If you’re sexually active, you can take these steps to protect yourself from getting or spreading HPV, genital warts and other STIs:
- Use condoms or dental dams.
- Get the HPV vaccine.
- Get routine testing and any necessary treatment for STIs.
- Tell your sexual partners if you have HPV or genital warts so they can get tested and treated.
- Be monogamous with one sexual partner or limit your number of partners.
- Don’t douche.
Outlook / Prognosis
What can I expect if I have genital warts?
Genital warts and HPV are common STIs. These types of warts, and the HPV types that cause them, don’t increase your risk for getting cancer. Some people have genital warts just once, while others have recurring outbreaks. Treatment can get rid of the warts, but it can’t cure them or HPV. You’ll always be infectious and need to practice safe sex with your partners.
When should I call my healthcare provider?
You should call your healthcare provider if you experience:
- Genital irritation or itching.
- Painful intercourse.
- Painful urination (dysuria).
- Unusual or foul-smelling penile or vaginal discharge.
- Vaginal or penile redness, soreness or swelling.
What questions should I ask my healthcare provider?
If you have genital warts, you may want to ask your healthcare provider:
- What is the best treatment for me?
- Will warts come back after treatment?
- What’s the best way to avoid getting another STI?
- How can I protect my partner from getting HPV or genital warts?
- Am I at risk for cervical cancer? If so, what steps can I take to protect my health?
- Should I look out for signs of complications?
Frequently Asked Questions
Are there genital warts that aren’t an STI?
No. All genital warts are a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
How do you stop genital warts from spreading?
There are a few things you can do to help genital warts from spreading to your partner:
- Always use condoms or dental dams during sex.
- Avoid sex when you have a visible wart.
- Tell your partner you have genital warts before engaging in sexual activity.
What’s the difference between genital warts and herpes?
Genital herpes (herpes simplex type 2) is similar to genital warts in that they’re both types of sexually transmitted infections. However, herpes cause sores and fluid-filled blisters to form on your genitals. This is different than warts, which are small bumps that typically don’t cause open sores. Both infections are spread during vaginal and anal sex.
Does having a genital wart mean I have an STI?
Yes. Almost all cases of genital warts are caused by HPV, which is a virus spread through sexual contact.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Thousands of people get genital warts every year, and thousands more have the virus that causes them. Genital warts may not appear until months — sometimes years — after infection. Once you know you have genital warts and HPV, you should share this information with your sexual partners. Your healthcare provider can offer suggestions for preventing the spread of this sexually transmitted infection (STI). You can also take steps to lower your risk of getting other STIs.