Genital warts, sometimes called venereal warts, are growths or bumps 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 currently many different strains of the HPV virus.
In females, genital warts appear in and around the vagina or anus or on the cervix. In males, they appear on the penis, scrotum, groin, or thigh. Genital warts can be raised or flat, small or large. Sometimes they're clustered together in a cauliflower-like shape. Most of the time, they're flesh-colored and painless. Sometimes, the warts are so small and flat that they may not be noticed right away.
It may take several months or years after infection for symptoms to appear — if there are symptoms at all.
Most of the time, you own immune system will clear the HPV virus. However, in rare cases in females, the virus can lead to changes in the cervix that may lead to cancer. A Pap smear is a test that is recommended at age 21 and older to screen for this problem. Males infected with HPV can also rarely be at risk for cancer of the penis and the anus.
Genital warts are transmitted through sexual contact (anal, oral, and vaginal) with an infected person, and warts can appear within several weeks or months afterwards.
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.
Prevention and Treatment
A vaccine for people 9 to 26 years old is approved to prevent HPV infection, which causes most cervical cancers and genital warts. The vaccine, called Gardasil, is given as three injections over a 6-month period. It doesn't protect those who've already been infected with certain HPV strains, and doesn't protect against all types of HPV, so be sure your child gets routine checkups and/or 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 against STDs.
Using 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 usually clears the HPV infection. 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 will be comfortable talking with parents about these issues. But it's important to encourage them to talk to a trusted adult who can provide the facts.
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: Michele Van Vranken, MD
Date reviewed: January 2011