Are HPV and Genital Warts the Same Thing?

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI). There are different strains of HPV. Some types cause genital warts, while others cause cervical cancer. 

While HPV can’t be cured, you can prevent it by getting an HPV vaccine. Using a condom every time you have sex can also provide some protection.

You may wonder if HPV is the same as genital warts and if genital warts can raise your cancer risk. This article answers some of the most common questions about HPV, cervical cancer, and genital warts. It covers risk factors, symptoms, screening, treatment, and prevention.

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What Causes Genital Warts?

Some types of HPV, but not all, can cause genital warts. These are called the “low-risk” types of HPV because they do not increase cancer risk.

Not everyone living with these types of HPV will develop warts, though. For 90% of people, HPV goes away in a couple of years on its own without causing health problems.

Which HPV Strains Cause Genital Warts?

HPV 6 and HPV 11 account for 90% of genital warts.

Risk Factors for Genital Warts

Several risk factors can increase your odds of contracting HPV, including:

  • Multiple sexual partners
  • Unprotected (also referred to as condomless) vaginal, anal, or oral sex
  • Young age at first sexual intercourse
  • Genital-to-genital contact
  • Childbirth
  • Previous sexually transmitted infection

Genital warts alone don’t raise your risk of cervical cancer. However, the risk factors that lead to a person contracting genital warts are the same as those that lead to cervical cancer. While the same strain of HPV does not cause warts and cervical cancer, all strains are transmitted (spread) the same way.

How Is HPV Spread?

Unlike other STIs, HPV is not spread by semen or vaginal fluid. It’s transmitted by skin-to-skin contact. A condom provides some protection but doesn’t necessarily provide complete protection. This is because part of the skin of the penis can still touch a partner’s groin area.

Symptoms of Genital Warts

Most people with HPV do not have symptoms. Genital wart HPV types can cause small pink- or flesh-colored lesions that look like small cauliflower pieces.

Genital warts most commonly occur on the labia, the opening to the vagina, or the tip of the penis. They may also appear on the shaft of the penis or the testicles. Sometimes warts develop around the anus, even if you haven’t had anal sex.

Despite equal infection rates, genital warts appear less often in males.

You can get warts in your mouth and throat if you have oral sex with someone infected with an HPV type that causes genital warts.

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This video has been medically reviewed by Anita Sadaty, MD

HPV Screening and Treatment

The American Cancer Society recommends screening for cervical cancer and cervical pre-cancer with an HPV test. This test can determine whether or not you contracted a high-risk type of HPV. You can also screen for cancer and pre-cancer by getting a Pap test every three years.

What Is a Pap Smear?

If you have a high-risk type of HPV, your healthcare provider will monitor you with regular Pap smear tests. These tests are also referred to as a Pap or Pap test.

A Pap is usually done at the same time as a pelvic exam. The healthcare provider takes a small sample of the cells on the cervix to look for abnormalities or precancerous cells. If a Pap test finds abnormal cells, they can be removed by a healthcare provider.

No medical treatment can eliminate the virus, but treatments are available for health problems or symptoms caused by HPV. Most of the time, though, the infection will clear up on its own.

While genital warts don’t necessarily need to be treated, many people choose to have them removed. Ask your healthcare provider what’s best in your particular case. Even after treatment, genital warts frequently recur. Therefore, you may need more than one treatment strategy to eliminate them.

The treatment type will depend on the extent of the warts (size and amount), your personal preferences, pregnancy status, available resources, cost, and healthcare provider experience.

Patient-Applied Treatments

Some genital wart treatments are prescribed and applied at home. These include topical (on the skin) medication such as:

Healthcare Provider Applied Treatments

Treatments applied by healthcare providers include:

  • Podocon-25 (podophyllin), which is applied weekly for three to six weeks
  • Tri-Chlor (trichloroacetic acid) or bichloroacetic acid is applied one to three times per week and repeated as needed.

Medical Treatments

The following are medical treatments performed by a healthcare provider:

  • Cryotherapy (freezing) for small warts
  • Electrocautery (burning)
  • Laser treatment
  • Interferon, a substance that helps your body’s immune system, injected directly into the warts
  • Surgical removal

Preventing HPV and Genital Warts

High-risk types of HPV can be prevented with a vaccine. The Gardasil 9 vaccine is the only one available in the United States. It is approved for people ages 9 through 45.

Most health organizations recommend vaccination for people between 11 and 12 years of age. Importantly, the vaccine is only effective if you receive it before infection. It cannot eliminate HPV you have already acquired.

Not all HPV vaccines prevent genital warts. Most genital warts are caused by HPV 6 and HPV 11. Both Gardasil and Gardasil 9 protect against HPV 6 and HPV 11. Cervarix only protects against types HPV 16 and HPV 18.

You can also help prevent HPV with proper condom use and by limiting the number of sexual partners you have.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends HPV vaccination at age 11 or 12, though vaccination can be started as early as age 9.

Routine HPV vaccination isn’t recommended for people older than age 26. However, ACIP recommends shared clinical decision-making between healthcare providers and adults aged 27 to 45 who are not adequately vaccinated.

Summary

HPV is a common STI. Some types cause genital warts, while others do not generally cause symptoms. The strains that cause genital warts are considered low-risk, meaning they do not put you at risk for cervical cancer.

If you contract a high-risk strain of HPV, you will need to be closely monitored by a healthcare provider. Regular Pap tests can identify abnormal cells that could lead to cancer. These cells can be removed by a healthcare provider.

HPV can’t be cured, but the health problems it causes can be treated. Genital warts do not necessarily need to be treated and may come back after treatment. Both genital warts and higher-risk types of HPV can be prevented with the Gardasil 9 vaccine.

A Word From Verywell

There is a lot of stigma and stress attached to STIs. It can be shocking to receive a diagnosis of HPV, especially if you don’t have symptoms.

Keep in mind that not all HPV strains cause genital warts, and the same strain that causes genital warts does not cause cervical cancer. Many times, HPV resolves on its own.

If you do have symptoms such as genital warts, talk with your healthcare provider. While it's not curable, there are highly effective treatments.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are all genital warts HPV?

    Yes, genital warts are caused by certain strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV).

  • Can you have genital warts without having HPV?

    No, while not all strains of HPV cause genital warts, all genital warts are caused by some strain of HPV. However, some people mistake moles, skin tags, or other sores for warts. It’s best to have a healthcare provider look at them to know for sure.

  • Does HPV positive mean you have genital warts?

    No, HPV often remains asymptomatic (no symptoms) and goes away on its own in a couple of years. However, some strains of HPV can cause genital warts. Other strains of HPV can lead to cervical cancer.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  5. Sabeena S, Bhat P, Kamath V, Arunkumar G. Possible non‐sexual modes of transmission of Human Papilloma Virus. J Obstet Gynaecol Res. 2017;43(3):427-435. doi:10.1111/jog.13248

  6. Kashyap N, Krishnan N, Kaur S, Ghai S. Risk factors of cervical cancer: a case-control study. Asia Pac J Oncol Nurs. 2019;6(3):308-314. doi:10.4103/apjon.apjon_73_18

  7. American Cancer Society. HPV and HPV testing.

  8. Karnes J, Usatine RP. Management of external genital warts. Am Fam Physician. 2014;90(5):312-318.

  9. UpToDate. Patient education: genital warts in women (beyond the basics).

  10. Meites E, Szilagyi PG, Chesson HW, Unger ER, Romero JR, Markowitz LE. Human papillomavirus vaccination for adults: updated recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2019;68(32):698-702. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm6832a3

By Brandi Jones, MSN-ED RN-BC
Brandi is a nurse and the owner of Brandi Jones LLC. She specializes in health and wellness writing including blogs, articles, and education.

Originally written by Lisa Fayed