Genital warts are painless skin bumps in your genital area. You may have a single wart or several grouped together. They can have a flat or rough surface. Genital warts can appear on the penis, scrotum, vagina, vulva, or anus.
Genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. Most people who become infected with HPV will not have any warts, but they can still pass the virus on to another person. HPV is passed on through skin contact with a wart during sex.
It can take 1 to 6 months for warts to appear after you are exposed to the virus. But sometimes a wart may not appear until years later. Genital warts can grow at different rates. Warts may grow and spread faster in people who are pregnant and who have a weak immune system.
About 30 types of HPV can cause genital warts. Most of these types cause no other problems. But a few types of HPV can infect a woman’s cervix. If a cervical infection with one of these viruses goes undiagnosed and untreated, the woman is at higher risk for cervical cancer. It takes many months to years for signs of cancer to develop from an HPV virus infection of the cervix. Women who have genital warts and women who have a partner with genital warts should get regular Pap tests. These tests look for changes that may lead to cervical cancer.
Most warts go away on their own in 1 to 2 years. But it’s important to consider treatment. Treatment can:
Make the warts go away sooner
Lower the risk of spreading HPV to others
Lower the risk for cervical cancer if you’re a woman
Warts can be treated by freezing them, cutting them, removing them with a laser, using a prescription cream (imiquimod) to boost the immune system around the warts, or applying a liquid or gel to dissolve them. You may need more than one treatment session to make the warts go away. But even after the warts are gone, the virus remains in your skin. The warts may reappear. Be sure to let your healthcare provider know if there's any chance that you could be pregnant before starting treatment.
You can get an HPV vaccine. The vaccine protects against certain types of HPV that cause genital warts and cervical cancer. Even though you have HPV now, being vaccinated could still help protect you from getting other types of HPV in the future. This is true for your partner as well. Ask your healthcare provider if getting vaccinated makes sense for you. Urge your partner to also ask about getting vaccinated.
Follow these tips to care for yourself at home:
Apply an ointment or gel prescribed for you exactly as directed. Be careful not to get the ointment or gel on nearby healthy skin.
After applying the ointment or gel, keep the area clean and dry. Wear loose-fitting cotton underwear to avoid chafing.
If you have pain after treatment, sit in a tub with a few inches of warm water for 20 minutes (sitz bath). Do this 3 times a day for the next 2 to 3 days. Add a cup of cornstarch or baking soda, or a packet of colloidal oatmeal or astringent solution powder, to the water. This will help soothe your skin.
How to prevent passing on the virus
The HPV virus is spread by having sex with someone who is infected. The risk of passing on the virus is greatest when you have warts. But there is a chance of spreading the virus even after treatment, when the wart can’t be seen. Condoms offer only limited protection from the warts. This is because HPV can infect skin in the genital area not covered by the condom.
Partners usually have the same type of HPV, so it’s probably not necessary to refrain from sex with your current partner. But don’t have sex with any new partner until all visible warts are gone. If you’re a man, tell all current and future sexual partners that you have had genital warts. This way, the woman can be sure to have regular Pap test.
When you first learn that you have genital warts, you may feel guilty, angry, and upset. Getting the facts helps put you back in control. Follow up with your healthcare provider or your local public health department. You can get a complete STI screening, including HIV testing. For more information, call the national STI hotline at 800-232-4636. After treatment, you should be rechecked in about 3 months to make sure all warts are gone.
When to seek medical advice
Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these occur after treating a wart:
Redness or burning on your skin that doesn’t stop within a few hours
Swelling of the skin around the treated area
Pus draining from the treated area
Otherwise, get prompt medical attention if you have:
Trouble urinating or having a bowel movement
Fluid coming from the vagina or penis
Skin rash or pain in a joint