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What should I do if I've been exposed to genital warts?

What should I do if I've been exposed to genital warts?

Updated on:
September 20, 2021

If you're concerned that you may have been exposed to genital warts, it's important to remember that they are extremely common, and the majority of sexually active people will contract some strain of HPV at some point in their life. Approx. 70% of Canadians who are sexually active will have an HPV infection at some point in their lives, with about 10% of sexually active Canadians having an active HPV infection.  

Most people who get HPV will not show symptoms and it will often go away without treatment. Only some go on to develop genital warts. 

Inform your healthcare provider that you have been, or suspect you have been, exposed to genital warts so they can set up proper screening in the future for HPV-related issues. Discuss with your healthcare provider if getting the HPV vaccine is right for you.

What are the risks of getting genital warts?

The risk of getting the HPV infection which causes genital warts is extremely high if you’re sexually active. The risk of an HPV infection developing into genital warts is quite low. 

HPV is very common and many people do not know they have it as they show no symptoms. 70% of sexually active Canadians will contract at least one strain of an HPV infection in their anus or genital region during their lifetime.

Despite this high rate of HPV infection, only 1% of sexually active adults in Canada will ever develop genital warts from HPV.

You can drastically reduce your risk of contracting HPV and developing genital warts by getting vaccinated. It is very rare to develop genital warts after HPV vaccination if you haven’t previously been exposed to the types of HPV which cause 90% of genital warts and are covered by the vaccine. Additionally, vaccination can reduce HPV reinfection with strains of HPV associated with genital warts.   

Potential symptoms for genital warts

Genital warts appear as a small bump or group of bumps in the genital area including the anus, the penis, and the vagina. They may be small or large in size, raised from the skin or flat, and can sometimes be cauliflower-shaped. 

Sometimes genital warts can cause symptoms like itching, discomfort, or pain in the genital area. Rarely, genital warts may also bleed if excessively scratched or disturbed.   

Getting tested for genital warts 

There are no specific tests for genital warts and in most cases your healthcare provider will visually identify genital warts based on their shape, size and location to make a diagnosis. 

Rarely your healthcare provider may recommend a biopsy be performed. In this procedure, a very small sample of tissues suspected to be infected with genital warts is removed and analyzed under a microscope. 

What happens if I don't get treated?

Quite often treatment is not necessary but may be offered when there are genital warts present which a healthcare provider can remove. 

If genital warts cause itching, discomfort, pain, or bleeding it may be recommended to remove them. 

Do I need to tell my partners? 

You can decide if you'd like to inform your partners! You are not required to tell your partners you have an HPV infection and it is not a virus that requires public health reporting. 

The majority of people with HPV are unaware they have the infection and in most cases, it doesn't require treatment. Those who develop genital warts may wish to discuss it with a partner as they could potentially pass the strain of HPV that causes genital warts.  

Be open and honest about your sexual health with sexual partners. Sharing an HPV or genital warts diagnosis with sexual partners allows them to better look after their health. 

How do I tell my partners? 

Talk to your partners in a direct and honest way. Emphasize that most people will get HPV at some point in their lives and only very rarely will genital warts develop. 

Explain to your partner that HPV vaccination will reduce the risk of genital warts, as the HPV strains which cause most cases  are covered by the vaccine. 

Despite the social stigma associated with any type of STI, there’s nothing to be ashamed about as they can be a normal part of being sexually active.

Can I have sex if I've developed genital warts? 

First, check with your healthcare provider that it is ok for you to engage in sexual activity. Next, inform sexual partners you have an HPV infection that causes genital warts prior to engaging in sexual activity. 

If you are undergoing treatment for genital warts, do not have sex until the treatment is completed and the area is healed. Your healthcare provider will be able to tell you when it is safe to resume sexual activity.

Reviewed by:
Emeline Mugisha

Emeline’s expertise stems from over a decade of community/public health practice among marginalized communities in the U.S. and abroad, with a clinical focus on HIV and infectious diseases.

Using a social justice lens, she is a fierce advocate for empowerment-based practice, trauma-informed care, and cultivating rest as tools for advancing towards whole-life wellness.

She holds a Master of Science in Nursing and a Master of Public Health from Johns Hopkins University.