Genital warts (condylomata acuminata) are growths in or around the vagina, penis, or rectum caused by the human papillomavirus, which is sexually transmitted.
In the United States, about 1.4 million people have genital warts, which are caused by HPV. An estimated 24 million people have an HPV infection, and 5.5 million are infected each year. About 50% of women have been infected at least once by age 50. Most infections go away within 1 to 2 years, but some persist. Persistent infection can increase the risk of certain types of cancer.
There are over 70 known types of HPV. Some types cause common skin warts. Other types cause different types of genital infections:
HPV can also be spread during oral sex, causing infections of the mouth and increasing the risk of oral cancer.
In men, warts usually occur on the penis, especially under the foreskin in uncircumcised men, or in the urethra. In women, genital warts occur on the vulva, vaginal wall, cervix, and skin around the vaginal area. Genital warts may develop in the area around the anus and in the rectum, especially in people who engage in anal sex. Warts cause no symptoms in many people but cause occasional burning pain in some.
The warts usually appear 1 to 6 months after infection with HPV, beginning as tiny, soft, moist, pink or gray growths. They grow rapidly and become rough, irregular bumps, which sometimes grow out from the skin on narrow stalks. Their rough surfaces make them look like a small cauliflower. Warts often grow in clusters.
Warts may grow more rapidly and spread in pregnant women and in people who have a weakened immune system, such as those who have human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection.
Genital warts usually can be diagnosed based on their appearance. If warts look unusual, bleed, become open sores (ulcerate), or persist after treatment, they should be removed surgically and examined under a microscope to check for cancer.
If women have warts on the cervix, a Papanicolaou (Pap) test is done to rule out other abnormalities (such as cervical cancer—see Cancers of the Female Reproductive System: Cervical Cancer). If genital warts are diagnosed, women should have a Pap test and colposcopy of the vagina and cervix (using a magnifying instrument) twice a year so that any abnormalities can be identified and treated promptly.
Colposcopy is done to check for less visible warts on the cervix or in the anus. A stain may be applied to the area so that warts can be seen more easily. A sample taken from a wart may be analyzed using tests, such as the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). This test produces many copies of a gene, which may enable doctors to identify HPV's unique genetic material (DNA). These tests help confirm the diagnosis and enable doctors to identify the type of HPV.
A vaccine for HPV is available that protects against the two types of HPV (types 6 and 11) that cause about 80% of genital warts. This vaccine also protects against the two types of HPV (types 16 and 18) that are believed to cause the majority (about 70%) of cervical cancers. The HPV vaccine has been recommended for girls and women 9 to 26 years old for prevention of initial infection. Three doses are given, preferably at age 11 to 12 years. The vaccine should be administered before the onset of sexual activity, but girls and women who are sexually active should still be vaccinated. The vaccine's role in preventing HPV in boys and men has not been established.
Because of the location of these warts, condoms do not fully protect against infection.
If the immune system is healthy, it often eventually controls HPV and eliminates the warts and the virus, even without treatment. HPV infection is gone after 8 months in half of people and lasts longer than 2 years in fewer than 10%. If people with genital warts have a weakened immune system, treatment is required, and the warts often return.
No treatment for external warts is completely satisfactory, and some treatments are uncomfortable and leave scars. External genital warts may be removed with a laser or by freezing (cryotherapy) or surgery. A local or general anesthetic is used.
Alternatively, podophyllin toxin, imiquimod, or trichloroacetic acid can be applied directly to the warts. However, this approach requires many applications over weeks to months, may burn the surrounding skin, and is frequently ineffective. After treatment, the area may be painful. Imiquimod cream causes less burning but may be less effective. The warts may return after apparently successful treatment.
For warts in the urethra, a viewing tube (endoscope) with surgical attachments may be the most effective way to remove them. It requires a general anesthetic. Or drugs, such as thiotepa inserted into the urethra or the chemotherapy drug 5-fluorouracil injected into the wart, are often effective. Interferon-alpha injections into the wart or into a muscle are somewhat effective, but they must be given several times a week for many weeks and are expensive.
All sex partners should be examined for warts and other STDs and treated, if necessary. Sex partners should also have regular examinations to check for HPV infection.
Last full review/revision October 2008 by J. Allen McCutchan, MD, MSc