Can warts be spread from hands to genitals?

Dear Alice,

Both my boyfriend and I have warts on our hands. Can these warts be transferred to our genital areas?

Dear Reader,

The viruses that cause warts on hands are different from the viruses that cause genital warts. Humans are susceptible to hundreds of wart and herpes viruses, and they’re all unique. Although warts and herpes are contagious, warts on your hands or feet cannot be transferred to the genital area, and vice versa.

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the culprit behind all warts on the human body. HPV has hundreds of variations — or “strains” — with which someone may become infected. Only some HPV viruses are spread through sexual contact, while others are spread through different means. Genital warts, for example, are a specific STI (in fact, the most common STI) that are caused by an entirely different strain of virus from those that would cause warts elsewhere on your body. Therefore, warts found on your hands cannot be spread through sexual contact. 

Common warts (such as the ones that you and your boyfriend likely have on your hands) are also slightly different in appearance and transmission from genital warts. While both common warts and genital warts are small—typically raised growths of flesh on the skin—genital warts often have a cauliflower-like shape and can sometimes cause discomfort or itching. Both types of warts are contagious, meaning that they can be spread from person to person through skin-to-skin contact; however, genital warts are contracted through sex (including vaginal, anal, and oral sex) due to their location whereas common warts are generally spread through less intimate interactions. It is even possible to develop common warts after indirect exposure to HPV, such as if you touch a surface or object carrying the virus. Furthermore, common warts are most common among children and people with compromised immune systems, as adults generally have built up immunity to most viruses that cause them. 

Thankfully, both common warts and genital warts generally do not cause painful symptoms and will many times go away on their own without needing treatment. You may have heard that some types of HPV can lead to cancer, but those strains are not the same as the strain that causes genital warts. However, due to their highly contagious nature, it is recommended that someone with genital warts takes steps to prevent transmission so that they don’t get passed on to sexual partners. Your health care provider can provide testing to determine for sure whether or not you have genital warts. You may also want to consider using barriers such as condoms and dental dams during sex (including non-penetrative sex) to avoid potential contact with any genital warts. 

For more detailed information about genital warts, you may want to look at “what do genital warts look like” Q&A from the Go Ask Alice! archives. If you’re worried about warts and wish to discuss your concerns with a health care provider, you may also consider scheduling an appointment with your primary care provider or a dermatologist. They can provide details not only on wart prevention, but on possible treatments for your warts if they are particularly bothersome.

All the best,

Last updated Nov 25, 2022
Originally published Jul 09, 1999

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