Genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). There are over 100 HPV strains around today, but only two of them can cause warts.1 This group is referred to as “low-risk” HPVs.
In addition, even though HPV may not cause any symptoms at all, you may still have a high chance of passing the disease to someone else.2 To be able to spot warts, you must know what they look like first. They often take the appearance of:3
• Small, flesh-colored swellings. Sometimes, the color may be gray.
• Groups of warts that clump together and form a cauliflower shape.
The warts appear in specific areas in the genitals. In women, they can appear on the vulva, the walls of the vagina and the cervix. In men, they can appear on the tip or shaft of the penis and the scrotum.
For both sexes, they can develop in the anal region. In addition, warts may form in the mouth or throat due to performing oral sex with an infected partner.4
If you’re wondering, “Do genital warts itch and hurt?” Yes, they do itch and can be painful. If you scratch them hard enough, they can bleed and cause pain so it’s better to avoid touching them because you can spread the virus to your hands.5
Be Warned: HPV Can Cause Respiratory Papillomatosis
Respiratory papillomatosis occurs when HPV enters your airways, creating small tumors. It is a rare HPV complication, occurring in only around 2 per 100,000 adults and 4 per 100,000 infected children, or about 1,000 children a year.6 Symptoms of this condition include:7
• Hoarseness: You may notice your voice becoming hoarser over time. It may become weak, low and strained.
• Breathing noises: You may develop labored, noisy breathing due to the airways being obstructed by tumors.
• Speaking problems: You may have problems vocalizing words, or lose your voice entirely.
• Other breathing conditions: Chronic coughing develops, along with shortness of breath, choking and the feeling that foreign objects are inside the throat.
HPV Is Directly Linked to Certain Cancers
Certain HPV strains are tagged as “high-risk” due to their ability to cause certain cancers, such as:8
• Cervical cancer: Almost all types of cervical cancers are caused by HPV. Types 16 and 18 account for 70 percent of all cases.
• Anal cancer: HPV type 16 is known to be the cause of 95 percent of all anal cancers.
• Oropharyngeal cancer: This condition affects the middle throat, the base of the tongue and the tonsils. It is estimated that 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancers are caused by HPV. In the U.S. alone, HPV type 16 causes half of its recorded cases.
• Rarer cancers: HPV type 16 is known to be the cause of 65 percent of vaginal cancers, 50 percent of vulvar cancers and 35 percent of penile cancers.
When to See a Doctor
Both low- and high-risk HPVs can be asymptomatic, so it’s important to get tested for STDs regularly, especially if you are sexually active. Regular testing can help identify what HPV type you have, helping you formulate an appropriate treatment.