UT University Health Services

Genital Warts

What are genital warts?

Genital warts are similar to common warts but are usually found around or in the vagina, cervix (the lower part of the uterus), penis, scrotum, rectum, or the area between the vagina and rectum. They are soft, fleshy, small growths on the skin.

How do they occur?

Like other warts, genital warts are caused by a virus. The virus that causes genital warts is called human papillomavirus (HPV). There are many types of HPV. The types of virus that most often cause genital warts are called HPV-6 and HPV-11.

Genital warts are more contagious, or more easily spread, than other warts. They are spread by skin-to-skin contact. They may spread to other nearby parts of the body and they may be passed from person to person by sexual activity. The warts are usually first seen 1 to 6 months after you have been infected with HPV. However, you can be infected with HPV without having any visible warts.

HPV can cause changes in a woman's cervix. Most of the time these changes are harmless, but sometimes the changes may cause cervical cancer.

What are the symptoms?

Genital warts are small, flesh-colored, grayish white or pinkish white growths. You may have many warts or just 1 wart. The warts usually appear as thin, flexible, solid bumps on the skin that look like small pieces of cauliflower. Some warts, however, are quite small and flat and may not be easily noticed.

In women, warts can grow in the vulva (the folds of skin around the opening of the vagina), on the cervix, inside the vagina or urethra, or around the anus. In men, warts can grow on the tip or shaft of the penis and sometimes on the scrotum, in the urethra (the tube that carries urine out of the body), or around the anus.

You may have no other symptoms or you may also have:

  • a bad smell, mild irritation, burning, itching, or pain in the vulva or vagina
  • pain with intercourse
  • increased vaginal discharge
  • bleeding (from injury to warts during sex)

When genital warts are on the cervix or in the vagina, they may not cause any noticeable symptoms. However, a Pap test may show changes in the cells that suggest a viral infection, or your healthcare provider may see them during the exam.

How are they diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine your genital area and the warts. Your provider may put a liquid on the skin to make it easier to see warts. An instrument called a colposcope may be used to magnify the area so your provider can look more closely at the skin or the cervix. A sample of tissue may be taken for lab tests to help confirm the diagnosis. A scope may be used to check for warts in the bladder and the urethra.

Often warts that cannot be seen are diagnosed when women have a Pap test. Sometimes an HPV-DNA test may be done to see if the type of HPV causing the warts is the type associated with cervical cancer.

How are they treated?

The main methods of treatment are:

  • putting medicine on the warts
  • surgically removing the warts
  • freezing the warts with liquid nitrogen (cryotherapy)
  • destroying the warts with a laser
  • burning off the warts using a wire loop and electric current (electrocautery)
  • waiting to see if the warts go away on their own

You may need a local anesthetic to numb the area before some of these treatments.

If you have genital warts and plan to get pregnant, get treatment for the warts before you get pregnant. If you get genital warts while you are pregnant, it is rare for the HPV to affect the baby. However, warts tend to grow and you may get more of them during the pregnancy. Usually the warts are not treated until after you deliver your baby. A cesarean delivery (C-section) will not have to be done to prevent spread to the baby. You may need to have a C-section, however, if your healthcare provider thinks the warts are so big that a vaginal delivery may cause too much bleeding. Rarely does the baby develop warts after the delivery.

How long will the effects last?

Sometimes the warts may go away without treatment. They may, however, grow and form larger cauliflower-like clusters of warts.

Removal of the warts does not get rid of the virus, although the virus becomes dormant for varying lengths of times. Because you will still have the virus after treatment, other warts can grow. Recurrence can be treated using the same methods described above.

Certain types of HPV infection of the cervix can lead, in time, to cervical cancer in women. The HPV-6 and HPV-11 types of virus, which are the usual cause of genital warts, rarely lead to cancer and are called low-risk HPVs. High-risk types of HPVs cause growths that are usually flat and nearly invisible, as compared with the warts caused by types HPV-6 and HPV-11.

How can I help take care of myself?

  • See your health care provider promptly. Genital warts are contagious, and your warts can grow and spread without treatment. Since HPV is usually a sexually-transmitted infection, other tests are recommended.
  • Inform your partner(s) of the problem so that he or she can be examined and treated.
  • Women should have a Pap test as often as their healthcare provider recommends.
  • Get follow-up exams according to your healthcare provider's recommendations.
  • Avoid sexual activity during treatment.
  • Quit smoking. Cigarette smoking has been shown to increase the severity of warts.
  • Abstain from or limit the use of alcohol and other drugs because abuse impairs the body’s ability to fight the virus.
  • Good, nutrition, adequate sleep, regular exercise, and stress management assist the immune system in fighting the virus.
  • If you have genital warts and plan to get pregnant, have your warts checked by your provider.

How can I help prevent the spread of genital warts?

  • Keep the genital area clean and dry. You can use a hair dryer to help dry the area.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after touching the area with warts.
  • Do not scratch the warts.
  • Avoid sexual activity until the warts have completely healed.
  • Use latex condoms during intercourse. Condoms can reduce your risk of getting genital warts, but warts can spread from areas not covered by a condom.
  • Avoid having intercourse with multiple partners.

A vaccine is available to prevent types of HPV infections that are high risk for genital warts and cancer of the cervix. If you already have HPV, the vaccine will not cure your infection, but it will prevent infections with several other types of HPV.

The HPV vaccine is approved for boys, girls, men and women 9 to 26 years old. It is recommended for all girls 11 to 12 years old as part of their routine immunization schedule. It is given in 3 shots. The vaccine may protect against HPV for 5 years. Researchers are doing studies to see if a booster shot is needed after 5 years.

The vaccine is usually not given to pregnant women.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2018 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All Rights Reserved.

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