Overview of genital warts
Genital warts are warts that are located on the vulva, vagina, cervix, penis, scrotum, or anus. They are caused by certain strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) and are the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). More than 80% of sexually active people will contract some form of HPV in their lifetime.
If you suspect you have genital warts or have any concerns about your gynecological health, come to Dignity Health for care that’s personalized to your needs. Find a Doctor in your area for treatment of genital warts and other gynecological conditions.
It is possible to have genital warts without any noticeable symptoms, especially if the warts are located in the vagina or on the cervix. However, there are usually some signs, including the following:
- The presence of small, flat lesions; long, thin projections; or multiple bumps grouped together in the shape of cauliflower
- Discomfort or itching in your genital area
- Bleeding during sexual intercourse
When the lesions present as small and flat, they can be difficult to see or feel. In addition, they tend to form larger clusters when a person is immuno-compromised (meaning a decreased ability of the immune system to fight off infection). It is also important to be aware that genital warts can be present in the mouth, throat, and upper respiratory tract as well.
Genital warts are caused by HPV. A person can contract HPV from skin-to-skin contact during oral sex, vaginal sex, or anal sex. Genital warts may not develop until weeks or months after infection. Rarely, genital warts can pass from mother to child during vaginal birth.
It is important to note that while all warts, including common and plantar warts, are caused by strains of HPV, the strains that cause genital warts are not the same strains that cause other warts on the body. You cannot spread warts from your hands or elsewhere to your genitals, and you can’t spread them from your genitals to other parts of your body.
There are more than 100 different types of HPV. Of these, more than 40 strains cause genital warts, and two specific strains cause 90% of all cases of genital warts. These strains are HPV 6 and HPV 11.
Since genital warts and HPV are considered an STI, there are a number of risk factors that relate to sexual activity:
- Number of sexual partners – the more you have, the greater your risk
- Having unprotected sexual intercourse
- Having sexual intercourse with someone whose sexual history you don’t know
- Having had another STI
- Starting to be sexually active when you are young
- Being younger than age 30
- Having a weak immune system
- Being born to a mother who had the virus during childbirth
Fortunately, there are ways to prevent yourself from getting genital warts or any other type of HPV. The best way is to abstain from sexual intercourse. However, this is usually not realistic over a lifetime. You can minimize your risk by:
- Limiting the number of people you have sex with
- Having protected sex using a condom or a dental dam
- Verifying your partner’s sexual history before you have sex with them
None of these methods will guarantee protection. This includes condoms and dental dams that do not fully cover the exposed area of contact. For this reason, your best bet may be to get vaccinated. The HPV vaccination can prevent HPV infection and the development of genital warts. Three vaccines are commonly used:
- Gardasil 9
Women between the ages of 9 and 45 can be vaccinated against HPV. Children under the age of 15 can be effectively vaccinated with two doses, given at least six months apart. Anyone 15 and older should receive three doses of the vaccine.
To protect against genital warts, the vaccination must include protection against the HPV strains that cause genital warts. Gardasil 9 provides this protection. Some HPV vaccines only protect against the high-risk cancer-causing strains of HPV, which may or may not cause genital warts.
The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.