What do genital warts feel like? Your questions answered

    Updated 26 February 2024 |
    Published 24 December 2019
    Fact Checked
    Medically reviewed by Dr. Katharine C. DeGeorge, Associate professor of family medicine, University of Virginia, Virginia, US
    Written by Kate Hollowood
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    It can be scary to discover something that you think might be a genital wart. Keep reading to understand what to look for so you can figure it out as soon as possible.

    It can be a big shock to discover something that you think might be genital warts. Lots of people get them — in fact, genital warts are the most common of all sexually transmitted infections (STIs). But when it’s you or your partner, it’s normal to feel worried or alone. 

    Try not to panic, though, because with the help of your doctor, you can get rid of genital warts. To help you understand the symptoms first, let’s take a look at what genital warts actually look and feel like with a bit of help from a Flo expert and our Secret Chats community (a safe space in our app where members chat anonymously about all things health). Then, we’ll explain the treatment.

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    Key takeaways

    How do you know if you have genital warts?

    Genital warts are small, rough lumps that appear around the vagina, penis, anus, or perineum (the area between your genitals and anus)

    Finding a lump is no doubt enough to raise your alarm bells. But occasionally, genital warts can come with other symptoms to look out for, such as:

    What do genital warts look like?

    If you’ve found yourself frantically searching for images of genital warts, you certainly won’t be the first. Finding any unusual growth can be scary when you don’t know what it is, but try to take a deep breath and take things one step at a time. To help you know what’s what, genital warts can look like: 

    Understandably, your anxiety levels are probably high right now, but you don’t need to figure it all out by yourself. Remember, your doctor is there to support you. Speaking to them will help you get a diagnosis and proceed with the right treatment.

    Half of Americans will catch an STI*

    You're not alone. Learn more about symptoms and treatment in the Flo app. *Source: KFF

    What do genital warts feel like?

    You may not feel much at all — sometimes, genital warts can feel painful or itchy, but this is not usually the case. “When you touch a genital wart with your hand, it will feel soft and stuck to your skin,” says Flo expert Dr. Renita White, obstetrician and gynecologist, Georgia Obstetrics and Gynecology, US. 

    Even when they don’t feel like much physically, genital warts can bring up many different feelings on an emotional level. Know that all of these emotions are normal, and you’re not alone. 

    For example, one Flo user said on Secret Chats that they felt “ashamed” when they found out they had the condition. “I had genital warts at the opening of my vagina,” they said. “I sobbed for days, beating myself up, wanting to just get rid of myself because I felt ashamed. I told my current boyfriend, and he’s been so understanding.”

    Another user was distraught when she discovered genital warts despite having a supportive partner. “I’m honestly mentally wrecked over these small bumps. I can’t bear to look at them,” they said. “In my mind, I feel gross. But my partner seems to be so fine and understanding. I am going to have them removed, and I can try and hope my immune system fights it off. I’ll be getting the vaccine immediately.”

    What can be mistaken for genital warts?

    If you’re not sure whether your symptoms quite match the look and feel of genital warts, it could be something else. For example, to the untrained eye, it could be easy to mistake herpes for genital warts, as both STIs affect the genitals. The key difference is that herpes leads to painful sores and fluid-filled blisters, whereas genital warts don’t cause open sores and pain. 

    “There are other conditions that mimic the look of a genital wart, like skin tags or abnormal moles,” says Dr. White. “A condition called molluscum contagiosum [a skin infection caused by a virus] can also have a similar look. The bumps are usually very round and small and have a dimple in the center.” 

    Meanwhile, vestibular papillomatosis (VP) is another condition that can be mistaken for genital warts as it causes harmless bumps on the vulva. However, VP only causes lesions (or wounds) on the vulva (in particular, the inner lips) and entrance to the vagina. A telltale sign is that these lesions will always match the color of the surrounding area. The good news is that while they might be a pain to pronounce, neither molluscum contagiosum nor vestibular papillomatosis are a cause for concern and usually don’t require any treatment. However, it’s worth adding that molluscum contagiosum can be spread to others through direct physical or sexual contact.

    With all these possible conditions, figuring out what’s going on can feel stressful. That’s why the best thing to do is to reach out to your doctor. They’ll be able to tell you for sure what’s up and soothe any fears you may have. 

    After all, some people think they have genital warts when it turns out to be a false alarm. Take this Flo user’s experience, for example: “I had these skin-colored bumps like skin tags that wouldn’t go away. I thought I had genital warts and had my primary check them, and it turns out they were just infected hair follicles.” 

    Are genital warts common?

    Genital warts are the most common STI. For more context, at any given time, around one in 100 sexually active adults in the United States has genital warts.

    How to minimize the spread of genital warts

    Genital warts are caused by an extremely common virus and STI called HPV. Around 79 million people in the United States have HPV, but there are many different strains, and only two types of HPV lead to genital warts. 

    HPV is usually spread through vaginal or anal sex. Many people don’t know they have HPV, as there are often no symptoms, and there is currently no way to include HPV in usual STI testing

    To prevent getting an HPV infection and its related health problems, the best things you can do are:

    • Practice safe sex

    Using condoms or a dental dam can help reduce your chances of getting an STI like HPV while minimizing the chances of you spreading anything to others. But it’s important to know that condoms can’t eliminate the risk of catching HPV entirely, as it can be spread via any direct contact between you and your partners’ genital areas. This is why it’s better to avoid sex while you’re having treatment for genital warts. 

    • Get the HPV vaccine 

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all teenagers and young adults (up to age 26) get the HPV vaccine. Since it was first introduced in 2006, fewer teens and young adults have been getting genital warts.

    • Attend your cervical screenings

    Rarely, certain high-risk types of HPV (different strains to those that cause genital warts) can eventually lead to cervical cancer. That’s why it’s super important to keep up to date with your routine cervical screenings (also known as Pap tests). These screenings check for an HPV infection as well as abnormal precancerous and cancerous cells on the cervix so doctors can address problems before they’ve had a chance to develop. 

    The development of cervical cancer is slow — it can take 15 to 20 years for abnormal cells to turn into cancerous ones. This means your doctor will have plenty of time to treat you before any potential problems as long as you keep attending your screenings.  

    Thanks to Pap tests, deaths from cervical cancer have declined dramatically in the United States. So, while all this can sound really scary, as long as you attend your Pap tests, doctors can usually catch any issues early.

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    Can you have sex with genital warts?

    “If you currently have genital warts, you should avoid having sex,” says Dr. White. “It is best to see your doctor for treatment and start having sex again once the warts are no longer present.” 

    It can be nerve-racking talking about STIs with your doctor. But try to remember that they’ll most likely have seen countless cases like yours before, and it’s nothing to be embarrassed about.

    Can you get genital warts from oral sex?

    “It is possible to spread genital warts from any form of sexual contact, including oral sex,” says Dr. White. However, you can’t get genital warts from kissing — or, reassuringly, from sharing toilet seats, towels, cutlery, or cups, for that matter.

    How to prevent genital warts from coming back

    In nine out of 10 cases of HPV, the virus goes away on its own within two years. While there is no treatment for an HPV infection itself, genital warts can be treated by your health care provider. 

    What is the treatment for genital warts?

    Genital warts don’t always need treatment, as sometimes they go away on their own. Around 30% of genital warts will disappear on their own within four months. Only your health care provider can decide the best course of treatment for you by assessing what the warts look like and where they are. They might offer you:

    • Prescription cream

    You can usually apply a prescription cream, liquid, or ointment to the infected area yourself. If a big area has been affected, your doctor may do it for you. 

    • Freezing (cryotherapy) 

    Genital warts can be removed through a process of freezing them, a process which your health care provider may need to repeat several times. 

    • Laser treatment

    Doctors can also remove genital warts using lasers, which work by destroying the tiny blood vessels inside the warts.

    • Surgery

    After numbing the area with a local anesthetic, your health care provider can remove genital warts by cutting them out. This is usually only done when the warts are very big or if other kinds of treatment haven’t worked. 

    Here’s what one Secret Chats member remembers about having her warts treated. “I had warts, the worst breakout,” they said. “I got them frozen off. This was three years ago. The process is painful, but it’s like a painful pinch that lasts for three seconds, and it’s all gone. I haven’t had a breakout since, and my partner hasn’t shown any symptoms.”

    How often do genital warts recur? 

    Unfortunately, genital warts can come back once you’ve gotten rid of them, as there is no treatment for HPV, the underlying cause. In fact, most genital warts will come back within three months of the first treatment, even if it was successful. But try not to be too disheartened, as you can help prevent them from coming back by staying as healthy as possible and not smoking. And remember that for 90% of people with an HPV infection, the virus will have cleared within two years. 

    Going forward, try to keep practicing safe sex and make sure you get your regular sexual health checks. Not only will this help to minimize the spread of genital warts, but it’ll give you the best protection against other types of STIs as well as peace of mind.

    References

    “Cervical Cancer.” World Health Organization, 17 Nov. 2023, www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/cervical-cancer.

    “Cervical Cancer Is Preventable.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16 Mar. 2020, www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/cervical-cancer/index.html.

    Choudhary, Sanjiv, et al. “Molluscum Contagiosum at Eyelid.” BMJ Case Reports, vol. 16, no. 11, Nov. 2023, https://doi.org/10.1136/bcr-2023-255478.

    “Condom Effectiveness: Fact Sheet for Public Health Personnel.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/condomeffectiveness/latex.html. Accessed 22 Feb. 2024.

    Fonder, Margaret A., et al. “Vestibular Papillomatosis: A Benign Condition Mimicking Genital Warts.” Cutis, vol. 90, no. 6, Dec. 2012, pp. 300–01. pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23409479.

    Ghadishah, Delaram. “Genital Warts Differential Diagnoses.” Medscape, 16 Oct. 2018, emedicine.medscape.com/article/763014-differential?form=fpf.

    “Genital Warts.” Cleveland Clinic, my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/4209-genital-warts. Accessed 22 Feb. 2024.

    “Genital Warts.” Mayo Clinic, 19 Dec. 2023, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/genital-warts/symptoms-causes/syc-20355234.

    “Genital Warts.” NHS, www.nhs.uk/conditions/genital-warts. Accessed 22 Feb. 2024.

    “​​HPV Vaccination: What Everyone Should Know.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/hpv/public/index.html. Accessed 22 Feb. 2024.

    “Anogenital Warts: Sexually Transmitted Infections Treatment Guidelines, 2021.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/std/treatment-guidelines/anogenital-warts.htm. Accessed 22 Feb. 2024.

    Leslie, Stephen W., et al. “Genital Warts.” StatPearls, StatPearls Publishing, 30 May 2023. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441884.

    “Molluscum Contagiosum: Transmission.”www.cdc.gov/poxvirus/molluscum-contagiosum/transmission.html. Accessed 22 Feb. 2024.

    “Pap Test.” Johns Hopkins Medicine, www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/treatment-tests-and-therapies/pap-test. Accessed 22 Feb. 2024.

    Reed, Bridget. “What Is Vestibular Papillomatosis and How Do I Treat It?” Pharmacists.org, 10 Dec. 2022, www.pharmacists.org/vestibular-papillomatosis.

    “Genital HPV Infection – Basic Fact Sheet.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm. Accessed 22 Feb. 2024.

    “HPV and Cancer.” National Cancer Institute, 18 Oct. 2023, www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/infectious-agents/hpv-and-cancer

    History of updates

    Current version (26 February 2024)

    Medically reviewed by Dr. Katharine C. DeGeorge, Associate professor of family medicine, University of Virginia, Virginia, US
    Written by Kate Hollowood

    Published (24 December 2019)

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