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What do genital warts look like?

Learn about the appearance of genital warts.

Left untreated in women, genital warts can lead to cervical cancer. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Left untreated in women, genital warts can lead to cervical cancer.

Genital warts are caused by a sexually transmitted virus and are very contagious. They affect both men and women and in some cases may lead to cancer. Genital warts look like soft, flesh-colored or gray growths in the genital area. They may be flat or raised and are sometimes cauliflower-shaped. They can appear as a single growth or in large clusters.

Genital Warts in Women

In women, genital warts can appear on the vulva, the cervix, and inside and outside the vagina and anus. In men, genital warts appear on the penis, the scrotum or near the anus. Genital warts are spread through sexual contact, so they also can appear in the mouth or throat of someone who has had oral sex with an infected person. Symptoms of genital warts can include itching or even bleeding during sex. However, someone with genital warts may have no symptoms at all.

Genital warts are not always visible on an infected person and an infection can exist for months before warts are evident. In women, warts may grow internally and may not be visible on the outside of the body. Genital warts can lead to serious conditions like cervical cancer, vaginal cancer or cancer of the penis, so people who suspect they may have genital warts should consult a physician as soon as possible.

Causes of Genital Warts

Genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV. HPV infection is extremely common - in fact, there are more than six million HPV infection cases reported each year in the United States, according to the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Genital warts are spread by vaginal, anal and oral sexual contact with an infected person. They can also be spread by anal or vaginal skin contact.

A doctor usually can tell whether growths are genital warts through a simple visual inspection. Since an HPV infection can cause cervical cancer in women, doctors may order more tests for women who have genital warts. In some cases a Pap smear will be ordered, or a tissue sample may be taken from the woman's cervix to diagnose HPV infection.

Genital Warts Treatment

Genital warts in both men and women should be treated to avoid further growth and the risk of cancer. Options for removing genital warts include cryotherapy (freezing the warts), laser removal, chemical removal or a type of surgery called a loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP). A doctor can determine the best option. While genital warts can be removed, the HPV infection cannot be cured. It can stay dormant for a period of time and genital warts may reappear after removal.

For more information on genital warts, visit the Web sites of the American Academy of Family Physicians  and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

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