Overview

Genital warts are one of the most common types of sexually transmitted infections. Nearly all sexually active people will become infected with at least one type of human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus that causes genital warts, at some point during their lives. Women are somewhat more likely than men to develop genital warts.

As the name suggests, genital warts affect the moist tissues of the genital area. Genital warts may look like small, flesh-colored bumps or have a cauliflower-like appearance. In many cases, the warts are too small to be visible.

Like warts that appear elsewhere on your body, genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Some strains of genital HPV can cause genital warts, while others can cause cancer. Vaccines can help protect against certain strains of genital HPV.

Symptoms

In women, genital warts can grow on the vulva, the walls of the vagina, the area between the external genitals and the anus, the anal canal, and the cervix. In men, they may occur on the tip or shaft of the penis, the scrotum, or the anus. Genital warts can also develop in the mouth or throat of a person who has had oral sexual contact with an infected person.

The signs and symptoms of genital warts include:

  • Small, flesh-colored or gray swellings in your genital area
  • Several warts close together that take on a cauliflower-like shape
  • Itching or discomfort in your genital area
  • Bleeding with intercourse

Genital warts may be so small and flat that they can't be seen with the naked eye. Sometimes, however, genital warts may multiply into large clusters.

When to see a doctor

See a doctor if you or your partner develops bumps or warts in the genital area.

Causes

The human papillomavirus (HPV) causes warts. There are more than 40 different strains of HPV that specifically affect the genital area. Genital HPV is spread through sexual contact. In most cases, your immune system kills genital HPV and you never develop signs or symptoms of the infection.

Risk factors

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly all sexually active people will become infected with at least one type of HPV at some point during their lives. Factors that can increase your risk of becoming infected include:

  • Having unprotected sex with multiple partners
  • Having had another sexually transmitted infection
  • Having sex with a partner whose sexual history you don't know
  • Becoming sexually active at a young age

Complications

Genital wart complications may include:

  • Cancer. Cervical cancer has been closely linked with genital HPV infection. Certain types of HPV also are associated with cancer of the vulva, cancer of the anus, cancer of the penis, and cancer of the mouth and throat. Human papillomavirus infection doesn't always lead to cancer, but it's still important for women to have regular Pap tests, particularly if you've been infected with higher risk types of HPV.
  • Problems during pregnancy. Genital warts may cause problems during pregnancy. Warts could enlarge, making it difficult to urinate. Warts on the vaginal wall may reduce the ability of vaginal tissues to stretch during childbirth. Large warts on the vulva or in the vagina can bleed when stretched during delivery.

    Rarely, a baby born to a mother with genital warts may develop warts in his or her throat. The baby may need surgery to make sure his or her airway isn't blocked.

Prevention

Using a condom every time you have sex can significantly reduce your risk of contracting genital warts. Although condom use can reduce your risk, it is not 100 percent effective. You can still get genital warts.

Vaccination

A vaccine known as Gardasil protects against four strains of HPV that cause cancer, and is used to prevent genital warts. In 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a vaccine called Gardasil 9, which protects against nine strains of HPV.

Another vaccine, called Cervarix, protects against cervical cancer but not genital warts.

The national Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends routine HPV vaccination for girls and boys ages 11 and 12. If not fully vaccinated at that age, it's recommended that girls and women through age 26 and boys and men through age 21 receive the vaccine. However, men may receive the HPV vaccine through age 26 if desired.

These vaccines are most effective if given to children before they become sexually active. Research has shown that people under 21 and age 21 to 30 who receive the HPV vaccine can reduce their risk of getting genital warts by up to 50 percent.

Side effects from the vaccines are usually mild and include soreness at the injection site (the upper arm), headaches, low-grade fever or flu-like symptoms. Sometimes dizziness or fainting occurs after the injection, especially in adolescents.