Understanding Genital Warts

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

We know that the human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause cervical cancer and may put us at risk for other medical conditions. Some strains of this virus may cause genital warts, one of the most common types of sexually transmitted infections.

Genital warts are soft growths that look like a small cauliflower or flat gray or flesh-colored spots that appear on and around the genitals, including the penis, vulva, urethra, vagina, cervix and anus. They can also appear on the lips, mouth, tongue and throat. There are normally no other symptoms with genital warts but some people may experience increased vaginal discharge, genital itching or vaginal bleeding during or after sex.

Detection of genital warts

Many people who have genital warts have no symptoms and never know that they are there as they are not always easy to see without special equipment or procedures. Pap smears and HPV tests are the first tests performed to determine the presence of warts or the HPV virus.

For women, your doctor performs a colposcopy to magnify the genital area and allow the doctor to see growths that can't be seen with the naked eye. He may apply watered down vinegar to the area to help him better see any warts.


There is no over-the-counter medication to treat genital warts. They must be treated by a doctor. Some of the treatment methods include:

  • Cryosurgery, electrocauterization, lasers or excision to remove the warts

  • Medications which are applied directly to the infected area several times per week by you, at home

  • In-office skin treatments

The HPV virus that causes genital warts can cause an abnormal result on your pap smear. Your doctor may recommend more frequent pap smears for a period of time after you have received treatment. For example, the National Institutes of Health indicates that if you have had warts on your cervix you may need to have pap smears every 3 to 6 months after your treatment.

Because genital warts are sexually transmitted, all of your sexual partners should be tested for genital warts and receive treatment if they are found.

What to expect

When not treated, some cases of genital warts can spread throughout the vagina and cervix and can become large. Additional complications can include large warts which interfere with your ability to urinate and sometimes warts can cause complications in pregnancy. You should follow your doctor's instructions for treatment, make sure to go to follow-up appointments to be sure the warts have gone away.

Because you can contract or pass along genital warts, even if you can't see them, during intercourse and oral sex, you should always practice safe sex and require your partners to do the same. Even after you have been treated, you can still pass along the virus. Because warts can appear on or around the genitals, condoms do not give full protection from warts, however they do reduce your risk. The safest practice is to not have sex with anyone unless you both have been tested for STDs and are in an exclusive relationship.

The HPV vaccine is recommended for girls and women between the ages of 9 and 26.

Smoking has also been linked to genital warts, if you smoke, quit as smokers are at a higher risk of developing warts than non-smokers.


"Genital Warts," Date Unknown, Staff Writer, American Academy of Dermatology

"Genital Warts," Reviewed 2011, Nov 7, Reviewed by David Zieve, M.D. and Susan Storck, M.D. A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.