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Quick Facts

Genital Warts (Human Papillomavirus Infection, or HPV Infection)

By The Manual's Editorial Staff,

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What is HPV (human papillomavirus)?

HPV is a virus that causes warts. There are many types of HPV.

  • Some types of HPV cause warts on your skin

  • Other types of HPV cause warts on your genitals (genital warts)

Some of the types of HPV that cause genital warts also cause cancer.

The cancer you get from HPV occurs in the part of your body where the infection is. So if the infection is on your cervix (the lower part of your uterus that opens in to your vagina), you may get cervical cancer. If the infection is in your throat, you may get throat cancer.

How do I get an HPV infection?

HPV passes from person to person through touching. You get the types of HPV that cause genital warts by having sexual contact, including oral sex, with an infected person.

People can have an HPV infection without knowing it, so you may not know if the person you're having sex with is infected. You may not know you have an HPV infection because:

  • The infection didn't cause any warts

  • You didn't notice the warts (because they were very small or inside your vagina or rectum)

What are genital warts?

Genital warts are small bumps in or around your genital area.

  • Genital warts are common—8 out of 10 women are infected at least one time by age 50

  • Warts may appear on your crotch, around your anus, on your penis (men), or inside your vagina (women)

  • Most infections go away on their own in 1 to 2 years

  • Infections that don't go away increase the chance of cancer

  • There are vaccines to prevent most types of genital warts that cause cancer

What are the symptoms of genital warts?

  • Tiny, soft, moist pink or gray bumps on your crotch, around your anus, on your penis (men), or inside your vagina (women)

  • Sometimes the bumps grow bigger and become rough and uneven, looking like a mini cauliflower

  • Sometimes the warts burn or itch

How can doctors tell if I have genital warts?

  • Doctors usually recognize genital warts by the way the warts look

  • If the warts don't look like typical genital warts, your doctor may do tests for cancer and syphilis

To test for cancer, your doctor may remove the warts and send them to a laboratory. If warts are on the cervix, your doctor may also do a Pap test. With a Pap test, the doctor collects a sample of cells from your cervix during a pelvic exam for examining under a microscope.

To test for syphilis, your doctor will do a blood test.

How do doctors treat genital warts?

Doctors may:

  • Use a laser, freeze the wart off with medicine, or do surgery to get rid of genital warts on the outside of your body

  • Give you an ointment to put on genital warts on the outside of your body

  • Do surgery or give you shots of medicine for genital warts inside your body

Treatment can be painful or leave scars. If you're healthy, doctors may let genital warts go away on their own.

How can I prevent genital warts?

A vaccine (given by a shot) can prevent HPV.

  • Girls and boys should get the vaccine at age 11 to 12 years or before they start having any kind of sex, including oral sex

  • Because most people have been exposed to HPV by the time they are adults, doctors don't recommend the vaccine for people over age 21 to 26

Condoms help, but they can’t fully prevent genital warts because skin that is not covered by the condom can be infected by HPV.