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Genital Warts (HPV)

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What Are They?

Genital warts are warts that are located near or on the genital areas. In a female, that means on or near the vulva (the outside genital area), vagina, cervix, or anus. In a male, that means near or on the penis, scrotum, or anus.

Warts appear as bumps or growths. They can be flat or raised, single or many, small or large. They tend to be whitish or flesh colored. They are not always easy to see with the naked eye, and many times a person with genital warts doesn’t know that they’re there.

Genital warts are caused by a group of viruses called HPV (short for human papillomavirus). There are more than 100 types of HPV. Some of them cause the kind of warts you see on people’s hands and feet. Genital warts and the kinds of warts on hands and feet are usually caused by different types of HPV.

More than 40 types of HPV cause genital warts. Genital warts can be passed from person to person through intimate sexual contact (vaginal, oral, or anal sex). In some rare cases, genital warts are transmitted from a mother to her baby during childbirth.

HPV infections are common in teens and young adults. The more sexual partners someone has, the more likely it is that the person will get an HPV infection.

How Do People Know They Have HPV?

Most HPV infections have no signs or symptoms. So someone can be infected and pass the disease on to another person without knowing.

Some people do get visible warts. Although warts might hurt, itch, or feel uncomfortable, most of the time they don’t. This is one reason why people may not know they have them.

Doctors can diagnose warts by examining the skin closely (sometimes with a magnifying glass) and using a special solution to make them easier to see. A Pap smear (a test that is performed during a gynecologic exam) and other tests can help diagnose an HPV infection.

Experts believe that when a wart is present, the virus may be more contagious. But HPV can still spread even if you can’t see warts.

When Do Symptoms Start?

Warts can appear any time from several weeks to several months after a person has been exposed to them. Sometimes they might take even longer to appear because the virus can live in the body for a very long time before showing up as warts.

When to See a Doctor

See your doctor, gynecologist, or visit a health clinic if:

  • you are having sex or have had sex in the past
  • you have a bump or lump “down there”
  • you think you might have genital warts
  • you have had a partner who might have genital warts

Because many people who are infected with HPV don’t show any symptoms, everyone having sex should get regular medical checkups and tell their doctor about their sexual history.

Not all bumps on a person’s genitals are warts. Some can be pimples, other infections, or growths. Turn to your doctor for help — he or she can help figure out what a bump is and what you can do.

What Can Happen?

If a person doesn’t get treated, genital warts can sometimes grow bigger and multiply. Even if warts go away on their own, the virus is still in the body. That means warts can come back or the virus can spread to other people.

How Are They Prevented?

The only way to completely prevent genital warts is abstinence (the decision not to have sex). Teens who do have sex can get some protection by properly using a latex condom every time they have any kind of sex (vaginal, oral, or anal sex).

Condoms are a good defense against warts, but they can’t give 100% protection because the virus can spread from or to the parts of the genitals not covered by a condom.

Doctors recommend that girls ages 11 through 26 and guys 11 through 21 get the HPV vaccine. The vaccine protects against some types of HPV that cause genital warts and certain types of cancer.

How Are Warts Treated?

There is no cure that gets rid of the human papillomavirus completely. But treatments can reduce the number of warts — or help them go away faster. When the warts go away, the virus is still there, though it may not spread as easily.

A doctor will do an examination, make a diagnosis, and then provide treatment, if necessary. A number of different treatments might be used depending on where the warts are, how big they are, and how many there are. The doctor might put special medications on the warts or remove them with treatments like laser therapy or chemical “freezing.”

Sometimes warts can come back, so you might need to visit the doctor again. Anyone you’ve had sex with also should be checked for genital warts.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: March 2014