Genital warts, sometimes called venereal warts, are growths or bumps usually contracted through sexual contact. They’re caused by certain types of the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
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.
In females, genital warts appear in and around the vagina or anus or on the cervix. In males, they appear on the penis, scrotum, or around the anus. Genital warts can be raised or flat, small or large. Sometimes they’re clustered together in a cauliflower-like shape. Sometimes, the warts are so small and flat that they may not be noticed right away.
Most of the time, genital warts are flesh-colored and painless, but some people may experience itching, bleeding, burning, or pain. It may take several months or years after infection for symptoms to appear — if there are symptoms at all.
The virus that causes genital warts is typically transmitted through sexual contact (anal, oral, or vaginal) with an infected person, and warts can appear within several weeks or months afterwards.
When kids get genital warts, it could be a sign of sexual abuse, and parents should be aware of that possibility. However, HPV can also be transmitted through nonsexual contact between a child and a caregiver — for instance, while giving a child a bath or changing a diaper. Kids also can reinfect themselves by touching a wart somewhere else on their body and then touching their genital area.
The virus is passed through skin-to-skin contact, but not everyone who’s been exposed to the virus will develop genital warts. In fact, most people exposed to the virus do not develop warts. Sometimes, a person’s own immune system will clear the virus, and they might never even know they had it. When the HPV isn’t cleared away, genital warts or other problems can develop.
If left untreated, genital warts may grow bigger and multiply. They may go away on their own without treatment, but this doesn’t mean they should be ignored because when genital warts are present they can be spread to other people.
Prevention and Treatment
A vaccine for people 9 to 26 years old is approved to prevent HPV infection, which causes most genital warts and cervical cancers. The vaccine is given as three injections over a 6-month period and, to be effective, must be given before someone is exposed to HPV. It doesn’t protect people who have already been infected with certain HPV strains, and it doesn’t protect against all types of HPV, so be sure your kids have routine physical checkups and, for girls, gynecologic exams. If you have questions about the vaccine, talk with your doctor.
Because genital warts are spread through sexual contact, the best way to prevent them is to abstain from having sex. Sexual contact with more than one partner or with someone who has more than one partner increases the risk of contracting any STD.
When properly and consistently used, condoms decrease the risk of STDs. Latex condoms provide greater protection than natural-membrane condoms. The female condom, made of polyurethane, is also considered effective at preventing STDs. However, condoms can’t fully protect someone against genital warts because HPV can infect areas that aren’t covered by a condom. Using a douche can actually increase a female’s risk of contracting STDs because it can change the natural flora of the vagina and may flush bacteria higher into the genital tract.
The immune system can sometimes clear the warts with no treatment. Other times, genital warts can be treated and removed with prescription medication or other medical procedures, such as freezing or laser treatments.
A teen who is being treated for genital warts also should be tested for other STDs, and should have time alone with the doctor to openly discuss issues like sexual activity. Not all teens are comfortable talking with parents about these issues, but it’s important to encourage them to talk to a trusted adult who can help.
Talking to Sexually Active Teens
If your teen is thinking of becoming sexually active or already has started having sex, it’s important to talk about it. Make sure your teen knows how STDs can be spread (during anal, oral, or vaginal sex) and that these infections often don’t have symptoms, so a partner might have an STD without knowing it.
It can be difficult to talk about STDs, but just as with any other medical issue, teens need this information to stay safe and healthy. Provide the facts, and let your child know where you stand.
It’s also important that all teens have regular full physical exams — which can include screening for STDs. Your teen may want to see a gynecologist or a specialist in adolescent medicine to talk about sexual health issues. Community health organizations and sexual counseling centers in your local area also may be able to offer some guidance.
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: March 2014