Most people who are infected with HPV – which causes genital warts – don't know they're carrying the virus.
HPV — along with genital warts — is transmitted through vaginal, anal, and oral sex.
Most people with HPV don't know they're infected, and may only find out if they develop genital warts, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes.
Importantly, genital warts and other HPV symptoms sometimes only show up years after contracting the virus, but you can still pass the virus on to other people during this symptom-free period.
Signs and Symptoms
In men, genital warts may appear on the:
- Penis, including under the foreskin (of uncircumcised men)
- Upper thighs
- Anus and surrounding skin
They can also grow inside the urethra and anus.
Warts that develop inside the urethra may disrupt the flow of urine.
In women, genital warts can be found:
- Around the vulva, or opening of the vagina
- On the cervix, or lower end of the uterus
- Inside the vagina
- Inside or around the anus
- On the upper thighs
In both men and women, genital warts can also occur on the lips and tongue, and on the inside of the mouth and throat.
Not all genital warts are the same in appearance. They can be:
- Clearly visible, or too small to see
- Raised or flat
- Cauliflower-shaped (if they grow together in clusters)
- Pink or flesh-colored
- Soft to the touch
The bumps are generally painless and non-irritating, but this is not always the case — some people do experience pain and itchiness.
In rare cases, other symptoms may also develop, including:
- Increased vaginal discharge
- Bleeding from the vagina, anus, or urethra
- Increased dampness near the warts
Genital Warts Diagnosis
Your doctor can diagnose genital warts on sight during a physical examination, including a pelvic examination for women.
If you're a woman, your doctor may also perform a colposcopy to find genital warts on your cervix that are too small to see with the naked eye. This procedure involves using a light and a low-power microscope to view the cervix.
If anything looks abnormal, your doctor may take a tissue sample (biopsy) to inspect under a laboratory microscope.
Although the types of HPV that cause genital warts don't cause cancer, you may also be carrying a cancer-causing form of HPV if you have genital warts.
An HPV DNA test, conducted on tissue samples, can determine whether you have a "high-risk" type of HPV.
If you have genital warts, it's important to get screened for cancer — particularly cervical, vaginal, vulvar, and anal cancer.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Genital warts; MedlinePlus.
- Genital HPV Infection - Fact Sheet; CDC.
- Genital Warts - 2010 STD Treatment Guidelines; CDC.
- HPV and Men - Fact Sheet; CDC.
- The Link Between HPV and Cancer; CDC.