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What are genital warts?

A group of young adults sits under a tree

Genital warts are easily spread and affect both men and women.

Genital warts, also called condyloma, are caused by one of the most common and easily spread sexually transmitted infections (STIs). It's called the human papillomavirus, or HPV.

Almost all sexually active men and women will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives if they haven't had the HPV vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Where warts come from

About 40 types of HPV can infect the genital areas, and not all of them cause genital warts. Some HPV types can infect the mouth and throat. A few can even cause cervical cancer.

Anyone who has sex can get genital warts if his or her partner is infected with HPV. But some people have a higher risk. Factors that increase your risk include having:

  • More than one sex partner.
  • Low immunity levels due to another illness.

How do you know?

One of the reasons genital warts are so common is that they're easily spread. Nearly all people who have genital warts pass them on to their partners. In many cases, you won't know you have genital warts until months or sometimes even years after you're infected. This can make it hard to know who gave you the infection. It also leaves plenty of symptom-free time in which you could pass on the infection without knowing it.

Genital warts may appear around the vagina, cervix, anus, penis, scrotum, groin or thigh. Warts often show up as firm, dark pink or red dots or in a cluster that looks like cauliflower. Sometimes the warts won't be visible to the naked eye, according to the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA).

The best way to know if you have genital warts is to have a doctor examine you. According to ASHA, you should see a doctor if:

  • You have growths or skin changes on or near your genitals or anus.
  • You have itching, pain or bleeding around your genitals or anus.
  • Your sex partner has genital warts.

Treatment options

Some cases of genital warts go away on their own. But you'll usually need treatment to get rid of them. Treatment destroys the warts, but it can't kill the virus.

There are several possible treatments. Your doctor can help you choose the one that will work best for you. According to UpToDate, treatment options include the following:

Cold cautery, also called cryotherapy, destroys warts by freezing them with liquid nitrogen.

Hot cautery removes warts by burning them off with an electrical instrument.

Laser therapy removes warts with a high-intensity light beam.

Trichloroacetic acid is a liquid drug that can destroy warts.

Podofilox gel and imiquimod cream are treatments you can apply to external genital warts yourself.

Surgery may be needed in some cases.

Genital warts often need to be treated more than once. The first treatment may not eliminate the warts, or the warts may come back.

Protect yourself

If you aren't sexually active, you can't catch HPV. This means having no genital contact with anyone.

These additional steps can also help reduce your risk of contracting HPV:

  • Have sex with only one person who only has sex with you and who doesn't have genital warts.
  • Remember that people who have had a lot of sex partners in the past are more likely to have HPV. Many people don't know they're infected because they don't have symptoms.
  • Ask your doctor about the HPV vaccine. The American Cancer Society (ACS) says the vaccine works best when given to boys and girls between ages 9 and 12. The vaccine may be available for adults up to age 45. But in general, the ACS does not recommend HPV vaccination for people older than 26.

Condoms may help prevent HPV infection. But condoms don't prevent skin-to-skin contact in many of the areas that are prone to HPV infection. The virus can still spread to or from uncovered areas of skin.

Reviewed 7/11/2023

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