Sexual Health

Genital Warts in Males: Symptoms, Causes, Treatments

Author:

Zoe Miller, BSc, MD, MBChB
on
May 31, 2024
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Take-home points
  • Genital warts are a common sexually transmitted infection caused by the human papillomavirus.
  • Genital warts can be found in areas other than the genitals.
  • Genital warts are highly contagious and usually spread during sexual activity.
  • Genital warts can clear by themselves but usually require treatment.

What are genital warts?

Genital warts are a common sexually transmitted infection (STI) that are small growths or bumps that appear on the genitals which can cause discomfort and embarrassment. If you’re sexually active, there’s a 10% risk of catching genital warts throughout your lifetime.1 Spread by direct skin-to-skin contact, these warts appear on the fleshy areas around the genitals and are caused by a viral infection.

In this article, we’ll discuss genital warts in men, including the symptoms, causes, treatment options, and how to avoid getting them.

What do genital warts look like in men?

Genetical warts can develop anywhere on the penis, scrotum, groin, or anus, including in skin folds where they’re harder to notice. They usually appear as small, skin-coloured bumps with a cauliflower-like shape. They may be red, lighter, or darker than the surrounding skin.

Do genital warts cause symptoms?

For some people, genital warts don’t cause any symptoms, but in other people they cause itching, burning, and discomfort. If caught on an object such as clothing, the warts may bleed. It’s also possible to experience pain during sex or when trying to urinate, depending on where the warts are located.

What causes genital warts?

Genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Of the 150 strains of HPV (possibly more), 40 affect the genital area. HPV strains 6 and 11 are the most common cause of genital warts—other strains are also responsible for warts on the hands and verrucas on the feet.

Warts may develop immediately after exposure to the virus or many months (or even years) later. Some people infected with the virus never get warts at all.

Are genital warts contagious?

The strains of HPV that cause genital warts are highly contagious and often spread through skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity. No exchange of fluids is needed. Whilst a condom can help reduce the risk of transmitting the virus, it doesn’t fully prevent it. This is because there’s likely to still be some skin-to-skin contact.

People with visible warts are more likely to pass the virus on. However, it’s still possible for someone without any warts to pass on the virus since the virus can stay within the cells of the body without causing symptoms.

Do genital warts cause cancer?

HPV can increase the risk of certain types of cancer, including of the penis, mouth, throat, and anus;2 however, the strains of the virus that cause genital warts are low risk and very unlikely to cause cancer. Some studies have suggested that genital warts may increase the risk of cancer, but more research is needed.4

How to treat genital warts

1 in 3 cases of genital warts clear up by themselves within 6 months.5 However, treatment is often recommended when genital warts do not naturally disappear, or when they are causing itchy or painful symptoms.3

Topical medications, like imiquimod and podophyllotoxin, can be applied directly to the warts to help remove them. They come as a spray or cream and are prescribed by a doctor.

A healthcare professional can also remove the warts using a few different methods. Cryotherapy involves freezing the warts with liquid nitrogen, while electrocautery involves burning them off with a special device. Warts can also be removed surgically using a scalpel.5

Another important part of treatment is a discussion around sexual health. This will help the healthcare professional discover if you’re at risk of other STIs. It’s generally advised to abstain from sex until the genital warts have healed, and to continue to use condoms for 3 months after this due to the risk of the virus still being present in the cells.6

If there’s any doubt regarding your diagnosis, or if you have an underlying health condition, you may need extra tests (including a swab of the growths and blood tests) or to see a specialist.

Important note: We do not recommend using over-the-counter wart treatments from a pharmacy, as these are intended to be used on warts on the hands and feet, not the genitals. These medications may cause damage and make things worse.

How to avoid getting genital warts

Prevention is key when it comes to genital warts. The HPV vaccine can protect against most of the strains of HPV that cause genital warts and those known to increase the risk of cancer. Talk to your health provider about whether you’ve been vaccinated, and if not, whether you’re eligible to get vaccinated now.

Safe sex practices, such as using condoms, can also help prevent the spread of HPV and genital warts. This is vitally important if you know you have an active genital wart infection or have had one within the last 3 months. Whilst condoms can help, they’re not 100% effective at protecting against the virus. Some people might even refrain from sexual activity until the infection has cleared.

I have genital warts, what should I do?

If you suspect that you have genital warts, make sure to seek help from a healthcare professional. They can rule out any other causes of your symptoms, treat the genital warts, and answer any questions you might have. This is especially important if you are immunocompromised, or if you have HIV. Remember, genital warts are preventable and treatable. By getting the HPV vaccine and practising safe sex, you can reduce your risk of contracting genital warts and other HPV-related conditions.

References
  1. NICE. How common are anogenital warts?
  2. World Health Organization. Human papillomavirus and cancer [Internet]. www.who.int. 2023.
  3. NHS inform. Genital warts.
  4. Blomberg M et al. Genital Warts and Risk of Cancer: A Danish Study of Nearly 50 000 Patients With Genital Warts. The Journal of Infectious Diseases. 2012 Mar 15;205(10):1544–53.
  5. NICE. Warts – anogenital.
  6. 111.wales.nhs.uk. Genital warts. 2018.

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