You had the pleasure of sex recently. Maybe it was with someone you’re in a relationship with, or perhaps it was with an exciting new lover. But now you’re worried. You just heard that he or she has genital warts. You used a condom. Can you be sure it protected you? This morning you felt itchy ‘down there.’ Is that only your imagination? Is it something harmless? You did start using a different brand of body wash. Maybe it’s that. Or maybe you are now infected with a venereal disease. What are the early signs of genital warts anyway? Do you need to go to a doctor?
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What Are the Signs of Early Genital Warts?
Genital warts are caused by the human papilloma virus, also known as HPV. HPV is passed from one individual to another, primarily when they have sex. You can contract HPV even when you don’t have sex because it is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. The virus does not live in body fluids. You probably won’t know that you’ve been infected with the virus until you develop genital warts.
It’s possible to have HPV and be asymptotic, which means you don’t have genital warts or any other symptoms of infection for weeks or months. In some cases, a person can be asymptotic for years, then suddenly discover warts on their sex organs. It’s also possible that you’ll never have genital warts, despite being infected with HPV. The absence of outward signs in the beginning stage of genital warts makes it difficult to know whether you or a sex partner is infected with HPV. Even without any symptoms, people are contagious and can unwittingly infect others.
It’s more likely, however, that genital warts will begin growing with a month or two of infection. They prefer moist skin, so they often appear first around openings, such as the rectum, vagina, or head of the penis. They can assume a variety of shapes and sizes, and are sometimes so tiny that you don’t realize they are there. Genital warts can grow inside or outside your genitalia.
The first symptom for most people is itchiness. If the warts are large and internal, you may notice a feeling of obstruction when you urinate or defecate.
Women may feel a lump inside the vagina and sex might become painful. Some women may experience an irregular discharge from their vagina.
If the warts are located externally, they can become irritated and possibly bleed. Genital warts are usually painless, but you may notice tenderness or soreness in your genital areas.
When doing a self-exam for external growths, the first signs of genital warts will probably be grayish-looking growths.
Over time, the appearance may change, so that the growths are flesh-colored. Often, they’re pink or light brown, but they might be white or yellowish. Rather than color, it’s usually surface appearance that enables you to tell the difference between warts and other genital bumps.
What Do Genital Warts Look Like?
Genital warts tend to be soft. Like all warts, the surface is usually rough and looks lumpy. You can learn more about flat genital warts here. You may have only one or two warts, or you may have a cluster of several. They are often described as looking like a piece of cauliflower, especially when they grow in a group. Pedunculated warts grow at the end of a stalk.
Although genital warts are often external, they easily grow internally in a woman’s moist tissues. Women tend to have more symptoms than men do.
Women can discover warts growing:
- Inside their vagina.
- Outside their vagina.
- On their vulva (entrance to the vagina).
- On their cervix (opening to the uterus).
Due to hormonal changes, genital warts can grow faster and spread further if a woman is pregnant.
Men will find warts:
- Externally anywhere on their penis.
- Under their foreskin if they aren’t circumcised.
- On their scrotum.
There is not a specific test for men to determine if they have an HPV infection if they do not have visible warts.
Women and men can both experience genital warts inside the urethra, which is the tube that carries urine from the bladder to outside the body. Those may completely inside or they may protrude from the end of the urethra, especially in men. Even if you don’t engage in anal sex, genital warts can grow around and in your anus. These are sometimes referred to as anal or anogenital warts. The warts can also grow on the upper thighs of both sexes. Genital warts on the groin are not unusual.
Genital warts can appear on the lips, in the mouth, or in the throat of men and women who have oral sex. HPV and warts can also infect newborns if the mother is infected. If you want to know more about genital warts vs herpes, you’ll find information here.
While it’s essential to know the early signs and symptoms of genital warts, there are steps you can take to prevent them. If you keep your immune system strong, your body can repel HPV or even destroy it after you’re infected, and you’ll never develop warts. Lifestyle habits such as smoking and drinking can weaken your immune system, as can excessive stress. Most important, practice safe sex. Always use a condom, and do your best to avoid sexual intercourse with individuals you know are infected. If you’re having sex with a person who has had sex with many others or if you don’t know their sexual history, insist that they undergo testing for venereal diseases first. Have a regular checkup with a medical professional.
If you think you have any symptoms or signs of genital warts, you are well advised to consult a doctor. If you are infected, early treatment will help keep the warts from worsening.
Other reasons for medical intervention include:
- You may have other kinds of infections.
- You are contagious if you do have warts.
- You may have a cancer-causing virus instead.
- You risk the health of your baby if you’re pregnant or trying to become pregnant.
- You will learn how to do self-exams.
A medical diagnosis can bring you peace of mind if you have a harmless growth.
Not Every Genital Bump Is a Wart
Various kinds of lumps and bumps can make an appearance in or around your genitalia. If your question is about genital warts vs pimples, you can find answers here. Other bumps are less common. Some are worrisome and others are entirely harmless. Some are as simple as an ingrown hair.
- You know it’s a sebaceous cyst rather than a wart if it’s a small yellow bump that feels hard. Cysts occur when oil glands are blocked. They aren’t a problem unless they get infected, so it’s a good idea to have genital cysts monitored by your health care professional.
- Grooming and skin care products can irritate your skin and cause dermatitis. You’ll know it’s dermatitis because it starts as a rash. It usually only becomes a bump when you scratch or dig at it.
- Molluscum Contagiosum is a skin condition that is generally harmless, although it’s contagious. Most people get it from sexual encounters, but it can be spread in other ways. Molluscum are little flesh-colored bumps that look waxy. They may be dimpled on top, rather than lumpy or rough like warts. Medical treatments are available if the bumps are itchy or become irritated.
Certain types of lumps and bumps are exclusive to males. These include:
- Lymphocoele. It’s a swelling involving a lymph channel and can be either smooth or rough. It appears cord-like rather than warty. Lymphoecoele is harmless and usually disappears as time passes. If the swelling is painful, medical treatment is recommended.
- Parafrenular glands. These are small glands near the head of the penis. They differ from warts in that they are smooth. They are normal and don’t require any treatment.
- Pearly penile papules. These are glands that are more prominent or numerous in some men. Despite their rather alarming appearance, they are normal and no treatment is necessary.
None of these bumps are cancerous nor do they turn into cancer.
Males and females can both develop Fordyce Spots. These are small patches of glands that occur on the shaft of the penis or on the vulva. They are not contagious. They may be white, red, or reddish-yellow. Fordyce Spots are normal and do not require treatment. There may be just a few or there may be hundreds.
Except for molluscum, none of these conditions are contagious, and none are the early signs or symptoms of genital warts. They don’t turn into warts, nor do they make you more susceptible to HPV or genital warts.
Of course, there are also various kinds of genital cancers, so you should always consult a health care practitioner whenever you notice any kind of genital lump or bump. Genital itching, pain, bleeding, or irritation is not normal and should be checked by a medical professional. If you develop aching muscles, chills, or a fever, you may have an infection and it’s important to call your doctor as soon as possible.
Genital warts don’t have to destroy your sex life, but you do need to talk to a sexual partner about any genital lumps and bumps he or she has. This is important for your own health, especially if it’s someone you’ve not had sex with before. If you have genital warts, then insist on using a condom to protect the other person from infection. Condoms don’t offer complete protection, but they’re better than nothing. Be aware of the signs and symptoms of early genital warts and examine your sex organs on a regular basis. That way you’ll know if you have new lumps or bumps and can get treatment if necessary.