Genital warts are warts that are on or near a person's genital areas. They're caused by a group of viruses called human papillomavirus (HPV), which is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). There are many types of HPV, and more than 40 types cause genital warts.
A vaccine for people 9 to 26 years old is approved to prevent HPV infection, which causes most genital warts and cervical cancers.
Some types of HPV cause the kind of warts you see on people's hands and feet. Genital warts, though, appear on or near the vulva, vagina, cervix, or anus in females; and on or near the penis, scrotum, or anus in males.
Genital warts can be raised or flat, small or large. Sometimes they're grouped together in a cauliflower-like shape. Some warts can be so small and flat that they're not noticed right away.
Most of the time, genital warts are flesh-colored and painless, but some people may have itching, bleeding, burning, or pain.
Genital warts can pass from person to person through intimate sexual contact (touching someone's genitals or having vaginal, oral, or anal sex). They can appear any time from several weeks to several months later. Sometimes, it might take even longer because the virus can live in the body for a long time before showing up as warts.
When kids get genital warts, it could be a sign of sexual abuse, and parents should be aware of that possibility. However, HPV also can spread through nonsexual contact between a child and a caregiver — for instance, while giving a child a bath or changing a diaper. Kids can reinfect themselves by touching a wart somewhere else on their body and then touching their genital area.
Not everyone who's been exposed to the virus will develop genital warts. In fact, most people don't. Sometimes, the immune system will clear the virus, and people never even know they had it. When the HPV isn't cleared away, though, genital warts or other problems can develop.
If not treated, genital warts may grow bigger and multiply. They may go away on their own without treatment, but this doesn't mean they should be ignored because genital warts can be spread to other people.
Prevention and Treatment
The HPV vaccine is approved for people 9 to 26 years old:
- For kids and teens ages 9-14, the vaccine is given in two shots over a 6- to 12-month period.
- For teens and young adults ages 15-26, it is given in three shots over a 6-month period.
To be effective, the vaccine must be given before someone is exposed to HPV. It doesn't protect people who have already been infected with certain HPV strains, and it doesn't protect against all types of HPV. So be sure your kids have routine physical checkups and, for girls, gynecologic exams. If you have questions about the vaccine, talk with your doctor.
Because genital warts are spread through sexual contact, the best way to prevent them is to not have sex. Sexual contact with more than one partner or with someone who has more than one partner increases the risk of getting any STD.
When correctly used, condoms decrease the risk of STDs. Latex condoms provide greater protection than natural-membrane condoms. The female condom, made of polyurethane, is also considered effective at preventing STDs. However, condoms can't fully protect someone against genital warts because HPV can infect areas that aren't covered by a condom.
The immune system can sometimes clear the warts with no treatment. Other times, genital warts can be treated and removed with prescription medicine or other medical procedures, such as freezing or laser treatments.
A teen who is being treated for genital warts also should be tested for other STDs, and should have time alone with the doctor to openly discuss issues like sexual activity. Not all teens are comfortable talking with parents about these issues, so it's important to encourage them to talk to a trusted adult who can help.
Talking to Sexually Active Teens
If your teen is thinking of becoming sexually active or already has started having sex, it's important to talk about it. Make sure your teen knows how STDs can be spread (during anal, oral, or vaginal sex) and that these infections often don't have symptoms, so a partner might have an STD without knowing it.
It can be hard to talk about STDs, but just as with any other medical issue, teens need this information to stay safe and healthy. Provide the facts, and let your child know where you stand.
It's also important that all teens have regular full physical exams — which can include screening for STDs. Your teen may want to see a gynecologist or a specialist in adolescent medicine to talk about sexual health issues. Community health organizations and sexual counseling centers in your local area also can offer guidance.