Sexual Health

Genital Warts: What You Need to Know

Genital warts are a type of sexually transmitted infection caused by the human papillomavirus. You can get genital warts through vaginal, oral or anal sex. Genital warts appear as a small bump or group of bumps in the genital area. There is no treatment for HPV, but genital warts can be treated by your doctor.
Who gets genital warts?
About 400,000 Americans get genital warts each year. Researchers estimate that genital warts are more common in men.
How do you get them?
Nearly all cases of genital warts are caused by HPV.
Genital warts are spread most often through direct skin-to-skin contact during vaginal or anal sex. HPV, the virus that causes genital warts, can be spread even if the person does not have any genital warts that you can see.
Rarely, genital warts are spread:

  • By giving oral sex to someone who has HPV or genital warts
  • By receiving oral sex from someone who has HPV or genital warts on his or her mouth, lips or tongue
  • During childbirth from a woman to her baby

What are the signs and symptoms?
Genital warts usually appear as a small bump or group of bumps in the genital area. They are flesh-colored and can be flat or look bumpy like cauliflower. Some genital warts are so small you cannot see them.
In women, genital warts can grow:

  • Inside the vagina
  • On the vulva, cervix or groin
  • In or around the anus
  • On the lips, mouth, tongue or throat (this is very rare)

In men, genital warts can grow:

  • On the penis
  • On the scrotum, thigh or groin
  • In or around the anus
  • On the lips, mouth, tongue or throat (this is very rare)

Genital warts can cause itching, burning and discomfort. Talk to your doctor if you think you have genital warts.
How long does it take for genital warts to appear?
Warts usually appear within months after having sexual contact with someone with the HPV types that cause genital warts. Sometimes the warts appear in just days or weeks, while other people do not show genital warts until years later. Some people may get HPV but never get genital warts.
How are they treated?
There is no cure for HPV, but genital warts can be removed. If you decide to have warts removed, do not use over-the-counter medicines meant for other kinds of warts. There are special, prescription-only treatments for genital warts. Your doctor or nurse must prescribe the medicine for you.
Your doctor or nurse may apply a chemical to treat the warts in the doctor’s office, or prescribe a cream for you to apply at home. Surgery is also an option. Your doctor may:

  • Use an electric current to burn off the warts
  • Use a light/laser to destroy warts
  • Freeze off the warts
  • Cut out the warts
Related:
Checklist: 9 Things to Know Before Sex With a New Partner

Treatment can only remove the genital wart. Treatment does not cure HPV, the virus that causes genital warts.
Do I have to treat them?
No. Some people choose not to treat genital warts. If left untreated, genital warts may go away, stay the same or grow in size and number. Genital warts will not turn into cancer.
Even if you treat the genital warts, you can still spread genital warts and HPV, the virus that causes genital warts, to other people. Doctors do not know how long you are contagious after warts appear.
Could I still have HPV if I get my genital warts removed?
Yes. Even when warts are treated, you may still have HPV. This is why warts can come back after treatment. You can still spread HPV to other people after genital warts are removed.
How do genital warts affect pregnancy?
If you had genital warts that went away on their own or were treated, you will probably not have any problems during your pregnancy. Tell your doctor or nurse if you or your partner has ever had genital warts.
Genital warts in women during pregnancy might:

  • Bleed and grow (in size and number) due to hormonal changes in the body during pregnancy.
  • Block the birth canal. If this happens, you may need a C-section) delivery.
  • Expose babies to HPV types that cause warts in the babies’ airways. This very rare condition is called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis.
Related:
How to Talk to Parents About HPV Vaccines

How can I prevent them?
The best way to prevent genital warts or any STI is to not have vaginal, oral or anal sex.
If you do have sex, lower your risk of getting an STI with the following steps:

  • Get vaccinated. The FDA has approved HPV vaccines that protect against HPV types that cause most genital warts.
  • Use condoms. Condoms are the best way to prevent STIs when you have sex. Make sure to put the condom on before the penis touches the vagina, mouth or anus. HPV, the virus that causes genital warts, can infect areas that are not covered by a condom. You can get genital warts from direct skin-to-skin contact. Other methods of birth control, like birth control pills, shots, implants or diaphragms, will not protect you from STIs.
  • Get tested. Be sure you and your partner are tested for STIs. Talk to each other about the test results before you have sex.
  • Be monogamous. Having sex with just one partner can lower your risk for STIs. After being tested for STIs, be faithful to each other. That means that you have sex only with each other and no one else.
  • Limit your number of sex partners. Your risk of getting STIs goes up with the number of partners you have.
  • Do not douche. Douching removes some of the normal bacteria in the vagina that protects you from infection. This may increase your risk of getting STIs.
  • Do not abuse alcohol or drugs. Drinking too much alcohol or using drugs increases risky behavior and may put you at risk of sexual assault and possible exposure to STIs.

The steps work best when used together. No single step can protect you from every single type of STI.
Can women who have sex with women get genital warts?
Yes. It is possible to get genital warts, or any other STI, if you are a woman who has sex only with women.
Talk to your partner about her sexual history before having sex, and ask your doctor about getting tested if you have signs or symptoms of genital warts.

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