What to know about genital warts in women

By Beth Sissons 

Reviewed by Stacy Sampson, DO

Symptoms | Causes | Risk
factors | Seeing a doctor | Diagnosis | Treatment | Complications | Prevention | Summary

Genital warts are a very
common sexually transmitted infection. They can develop on or around the
genitals and may appear as small bumps or fleshy growths.

These warts result from
infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV). People who have the virus can
pass it on through vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
Genital warts can cause
discomfort, but they do not lead to other health problems and are not
A doctor can prescribe
treatments for relieving symptoms, and they can also remove the warts.
In this article, we
investigate the symptoms, causes, and risk factors of genital warts in the
female body.
We also describe diagnosis,
treatment, complications, and prevention.


Anyone can get genital warts.
In females, genital warts can develop in or around the:

  • vagina
  • vulva
  • cervix
  • anus
  • groin region and upper thighs
Because the virus can spread
through oral sex, warts can also appear on the lips, mouth, and throat.
Genital warts tend to look
like small, fleshy bumps or growths. The number of warts can vary, and clusters
may develop in a formation that resembles a cauliflower.
Genital warts are usually the
same color as the person’s skin or slightly darker. The bumps may be smooth or
rough. Also, they can be too small to notice.
Often, genital warts do not
cause symptoms. However, they can occur with:

  • itching
  • burning
  • tenderness or pain
  • bleeding

Genital warts result from
infection with HPV. This is a type of sexually transmitted infection (STI).
According to the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV is the most common STI in the United
It affects around 79 million
people in the country, mostly adults under the age of 30. There are around 14
million new HPV infections each year in the U.S.
A person with an HPV infection
can pass on the virus through:

  • vaginal, anal, and oral sex
  • skin-to-skin genital contact
  • childbirth
Genital warts do not always
appear immediately after a person becomes infected — they can take months or
even years to develop.
The CDC note that most people
fight off the virus without treatment and that, in this case, it does not cause
any health problems. Once the virus goes, a person can no longer pass it on.
There are many different types
of HPV. The type of HPV that causes genital warts does not cause cancer.

Risk factors

Anyone who is sexually active
is at risk of an HPV infection.
Other risk factors include:

  • smoking
  • having a weakened immune system
  • being under the age of 30
When to see a doctor

When a person notices that
they have genital warts, they should see a healthcare professional, for example
at a sexual health clinic.
Sometimes genital warts clear
up on their own over time. However, getting treatment can reduce the risk of
transmission and help ease uncomfortable symptoms, such as itching and pain.


Healthcare professionals
usually diagnose genital warts with a physical examination. To see the warts
better, they may use a colposcope or apply a vinegar solution to the genital
area, if the warts are not visible to the naked eye.
A healthcare professional may
also take a small sample of a visible wart and send it for analysis. This
testing can help confirm the diagnosis.


There is currently no
treatment for HPV. A person’s immune system often fights off the virus over
If genital warts are causing
discomfort or distress, a doctor can prescribe treatments to relieve symptoms
or remove the warts. This treatment can also help reduce the risk of passing on
the infection to other people.
Topical treatments for genital
warts include:

  • podofilox
  • imiquimod
  • podophyllin
  • trichloroacetic acid
For people with larger or more
difficult-to-treat warts, the doctor may recommend removing them. The following
are some removal methods:

  • Cryotherapy. This involves
    freezing off the warts with liquid nitrogen. Cryotherapy may cause a burning
    sensation, as well as pain and blistering.
  • Surgical excision. This
    involves a doctor cutting away the warts. Before the procedure, they will give
    the person a local anesthetic to numb the area.
  • Electrocautery. This involves
    a doctor burning the warts off the skin with an electrical device. A person may
    require a local or general anesthetic.
  • Laser therapy. In this
    procedure, a surgeon uses a powerful beam of light to destroy the warts. It can
    cause pain and irritation afterward.
It is important not to use
treatments for other types of warts on genital warts. Doing so can make
symptoms worse.
Removing genital warts does
not get rid of the HPV infection. They may return after treatment and a person
can still pass on the virus.
Also, wearing a condom during
sex can help lower the risk of transmission but does not completely prevent it.


There are over 100 different
types of HPV. The types that cause genital warts do not cause cancer. Even if a
person does not receive treatment for their genital warts, the warts will not
become cancerous.
However, a person can have
more than one type of HPV infection at a time, and at least 14 types can cause
cancer, including cervical cancer.
When a female has genital
warts, a doctor may suggest screening for signs of cervical cancer or high-risk
types of HPV.
The U.S. Preventive Services
Task Force recommend that all females:

  • aged 21–29 years have a
    cervical screening, also known as a Pap smear or smear test, every 3 years
  • aged 30–65 years have a Pap
    smear every 3 years, or a Pap smear plus an HPV test every 5 years
Females aged 30-65 years also
have the option of just having an HPV test every 5 years.
If a Pap smear gives an
unclear or abnormal result, it does not mean that a person has cancer. The doctor
will carry out additional tests to look for any changes in the cells of the
Pregnant women with a past
history of genital warts should inform their healthcare providers. This is
unlikely to cause any pregnancy complications or affect the baby.
Also, having genital warts
during pregnancy can make the delivery more difficult.


Wearing a condom during sex
lowers the risk of getting genital warts. However, a condom does not cover the
whole genital area and so may not completely protect against HPV transmission.
Other methods of birth control
do not protect against genital warts. It is important for people to tell their
sexual partners if they have these warts.
Getting an HPV vaccination can
also help protect against the types of the virus that can cause genital warts
or cervical cancer.
The CDC recommend HPV
vaccination for all children at 11 or 12 years of age and for all females aged
13–26 years.
According to the Office on
Women’s Health, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved the HPV
vaccine for people aged 9–45 years.
Anyone with any severe
allergies or an allergy to yeast should consult their doctor before getting the
The CDC do not recommend the
HPV vaccine for women who are pregnant.
Stopping smoking can also
lower the risk of getting genital warts.


Infection with some types of
HPV can cause genital warts. These can form in or around the vulva, vagina, or
The warts may appear on their
own or in cauliflower-like clusters. They can cause itching, tenderness, or a
burning sensation.
Genital warts are generally
harmless and are not cancerous. The types of HPV that cause genital warts do
not cause cervical cancer.
Although there is no treatment
for the virus, a doctor can prescribe medications to relieve symptoms. They can
also remove the warts. For large or difficult-to-treat warts, a doctor may
recommend surgical removal.
A person can pass on HPV
through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Wearing a condom during sex can help reduce
the risk of getting and spreading genital warts. HPV vaccination can also
protect against genital warts and cervical cancer.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.