Genital warts can be quite different in terms of shape and size, making it always preferable to get a professional diagnosis from a doctor. However, here we’ll tell you what these warts typically look like and how to start looking for them.
Genital warts are the only major symptom of a sexually transmitted infection (STI) by human papillomavirus (HPV), most often by HPV strains 6 and 11 although there are a staggering 38 additional strains that also can cause warts (they are just less common). HPV is contracted through skin-to-skin contact or sexual fluids, which of course is most likely during sex (vaginal, anal, and oral) with an infected partner. The chances of getting HPV from an infected partner are about 65% for each time you have sex with him or her.
Only 1% of the U.S. population are estimated to have visible genital warts, but a much larger share of people are infected by HPV without experiencing warts or other symptoms. In the absence of a vaccine, around 20% of people with an active sex life eventually will get one or the other strain of HPV. If it’s HPV 6 or 11 and the immune system is weak, an outbreak of warts can happen but not necessarily so. However, even if it’s a silent infection (without warts), the HPV can be passed on to other people during sex. Men are just as contagious as women despite them typically being less likely to develop wart outbreaks.
Of all the people who experience a genital wart outbreak, for some 80% warts will completely disappear within 18 months. There’s no permanent cure for HPV. Research is still ongoing, but it seems that once you have the virus it’ll stay with you for good and wart outbreaks can recur. However, longer-term the virus in most cases will be sufficiently repressed by the immune system so that it no longer causes outbreaks and also isn’t contagious anymore.
There are various effective treatments that can help you remove warts. In severe cases, surgery can also be an option.
Since warts are the only symptom of an HPV 6 or 11 infection, there’s really nothing you can look for until the first wart appears on your skin. They may first show up inside your genitals, which makes them difficult to spot, especially since they normally tend to be painless and itch-free. Women should search for warts inside their vagina, on their vulva and around the groin, while men should check their penis and groin. If transmitted by anal and oral sex, warts can also appear inside the mouth, on the lips, and around the anus.
What makes genital warts very tricky is that the incubation time (the time between transmission of the virus and the first wart appearing) can be as long as 8 months. So, if you had unprotected sex with a partner whom you think may have HPV, talk to a doctor whether you should do a test. There are different tests available that can give you clarity.
Genital warts are soft, skin-colored bumps that grow upward from the skin, first alone and later on in clusters. These clusters tend to be grayish in color and their shape and surface texture looks similar to cauliflower. Most people will only experience one or two small clusters or even only a couple of individual warts.
It’s important to bear in mind that not all bumps around the genitals have to be genital warts. There are other STIs, such as syphilis, that causes similar-looking bumps. That’s why it’s important to have any unusual skin growth checked out by a medical professional.
If found early on, several topical medications can treat genital warts effectively. Without treatment or natural disappearance, warts may grow to a stage where minor surgery may be required, either by laser, freezing, or chemical removal).
Prescription-based topical creams like Imiquimod can guide your immune cells to attack abnormal growths like warts. A 3 to 4 week treatment can effectively clear genital warts. Talk to your doctor or gynecologist to learn more about the available treatment options.