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How to recognise genital warts symptoms

Genital warts are a common sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by human papillomavirus (HPV infection). The virus is spread through skin-to-skin contact and sexual contact.

However, a genital warts infection doesn’t always cause symptoms. Even when it does cause symptoms, many confuse genital warts for other conditions and don’t get it checked out.

If you’re worried you have genital warts symptoms, keep reading to find out what genital warts look and feel like, and what you need to do next.

Medically reviewed by Dr. Caroline Fontana Written by our editorial team Last reviewed 20-05-2024

What do genital warts look like?

Genital warts appear in various sizes and shapes.

The most common variations are:

  • small, scattered bumps
  • a cluster of bumps that look like a cauliflower
  • small growths that are raised or flat and smooth or rough

Some people may get a few warts. Others may get many. They may also change in size or number over time.

Man in blue jeans with hands in between his legs.

The warts are typically painless and don’t irritate. However, rarely, people may experience itching, burning, pain or bleeding from the warts.

What are the colours of genital warts?

Genital warts can develop in many colours and may look different on different skin tones.

They generally are one of the following:

  • white
  • red
  • skin-coloured
  • darker than your skin tone

This can make them difficult to diagnose. You’re more likely to diagnose them on their pattern and where they occur.

Where do genital warts occur?

They can appear anywhere around the genital area in men and women. Genital warts around the anus are usually caused by anal sex with someone with HPV.

Genital warts in men Genital warts in women
  • scrotum
  • tip or shaft of the penis
  • around the anus
  • skin between the genitals and the anus (perineum)
  • thigh and groin areas
  • vulva (external female genitalia)
  • around the vagina
  • cervix
  • around the anus
  • skin between the genitals and the anus (perineum)
  • thigh and groin areas

Rarely, warts can appear in the mouth or throat if you contract HPV through oral sex.

Do genital warts cause other symptoms?

It’s uncommon but genital warts may cause some discomfort.

You may also experience:

  • pain during sex
  • problems urinating
  • blood in your urine

However, these symptoms can occur in other infections or STIs. So, always get your symptoms checked.

When do symptoms occur?

Most people will usually notice symptoms within weeks of contracting HPV. However, some people may not notice symptoms for months or years after infection.

How long do symptoms last?

Some cases of genital warts go away by themselves. 30% Trusted source National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) Government Source Biomedical Research and Literature Go to source of genital warts will disappear within 4 months of first symptoms appearing. However, treatment will reduce this time significantly.

Can I get genital warts more than once?

There is no cure for HPV, so the virus stays in your body.

This means, in some cases, you may get multiple bouts of genital warts. It’s common for bouts to reoccur within 3 months, even if symptoms were successful.

Some people will only get symptoms once.

Genital warts during pregnancy

Genital warts are not harmful to a baby. However, pregnant women may experience worse symptoms.

Warts are more likely to multiply grow in size and become irritated. Rarely, HPV can be passed onto a baby during birth.

You will need to be referred to a sexual health specialist if you have genital warts whilst pregnant.

Do genital warts always cause symptoms?

No - you can contract genital warts and experience no symptoms. One literature review Trusted source National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) Government Source Biomedical Research and Literature Go to source found that 76 - 289 people in every 100,000 will have genital warts but no symptoms.

While it’s a small percentage, it still happens. It’s another reason to get regularly tested for STIs so that you don’t spread or catch an infection without knowing.

Is it genital warts or something else?

Genital warts can appear similar to other infections or skin conditions. Here are some of the most common comparisons.

Ingrown hairs

Ingrown hairs occur when a strand of hair grows back into the skin after being tweezed, shaved or waxed. It’s also known as razor burn.

They cause itchy, red and raised bumps to appear around the site of the hair. These bumps usually go away on their own.

Close-up of a young woman shaving in a bathrobe.

Genital warts are less likely to itch or cause irritation. They also take a lot longer to disappear without treatment.

Skin tags

Skin tags are small, soft, flesh-coloured growths that hang off the skin. They are completely harmless and don’t require treatment.

They develop when the skin rubs together. So, they are common in areas like the armpits, thighs, eyelids and neck. They also occur around the anus, so they can be mistaken for warts.

Close-up of skin tags on a man’s neck.

Skin tags usually look different to warts. They are typically skin coloured or brown. In addition, they’re unlikely to form in clusters or multiply like warts.

Genital herpes

Genital herpes are another type of STI caused by the herpes simplex virus.

Like genital warts, genital herpes occurs across the anogenital area and is transmitted through vaginal, anal or oral sex. However, the lesions look different.

Genital herpes are small red fluid-filled blisters. They also cause a tingling, burning or stinging sensation. Warts do not contain any pus and are unlikely to cause any irritation.

Condition Cause Contagious Symptoms
Genital warts HPV (human papillomavirus) Yes Clusters of raised bumps around the anogenital area.
Ingrown hairs Hair growing back into the skin after being removed No Itchy, red, raised bumps.
Skin tags Skin rubbing together No Singular small, flesh-coloured growths.
Genital herpes Herpes virus (HSV 1 or 2) Yes Pus-filled and itchy blisters that occur in the anogenital area.

What to do if you think you have genital warts

If you have symptoms, had sexual activity with someone who has had symptoms or have had any unprotected sex - you should visit a sexual health clinic.

Close-up of a medical form asking if the person is at risk of genital warts.

A doctor or nurse at the clinic will be able to diagnose genital warts by looking at them. They will also ask you some questions about your sexual history.

Then, they can decide on the best course of treatment. To treat genital warts, they may decide to offer prescription treatments for genital warts or you may require a minor procedure.

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