What are these bumps?
Genital skin tags and genital warts are two common skin conditions. They can be confused for one another because of where they develop and how they look.
Genital skin tags are round, soft skin growths that develop on a stalk. They look like tiny, deflated balloons. They aren’t harmful or cancerous, but they can be aggravating, especially if they snag on clothes or are rubbed during intercourse.
Genital warts are lesions or bumps that are flat or slightly raised on the skin’s surface. They usually feel rough or bumpy, and may resemble a cauliflower.
Like skin stags, genital warts aren’t dangerous or cancerous, but they’re a sign of an infection. Treatment is necessary to prevent the infection from spreading.
Keep reading to learn more about what these bumps look like, what causes them, and how they’re treated.
What do they look like?
Tips for identification
Both skin tags and warts can develop as a single bump, or they can grow in clusters. It’s possible for additional tags or warts to appear in the same area over time.
These bumps are usually small, which may make identification harder, but there are clear visual differences between the two that may make it easier to recognize what you have.
Genital skin tags
Genital skin tags are soft tissue fibromas, or small, flesh-colored growths. They develop on stalks or tiny “limbs” off the surface of your skin. When pressed, they’re soft and should bend easily.
Although most skin tags are small, some can be as large as a pencil eraser. Some people may develop a skin tag that’s the size of a grape or even a fig.
Skin tags develop rapidly, but they rarely continue to grow after the earliest stages of development. In other words, they don’t change much over time.
It’s possible for a tag to move from flesh-colored to lighter brown to darker brown. This color change is typical and usually isn’t cause for concern.
Skin tags are very common. They usually develop on the neck, under your armpits, or in between other folds of skin. They can also develop in the groin or on your genitalia.
Vaginal tags are less common. This is due to the moist nature of the vagina — most tags are caused by friction, and the moist environment prevents this. Skin tags may still develop on the pubis or labia.
Genital warts are flat, or slightly raised, bumps on the surface of the skin. Warts can grow all over the body, but genital warts appear on the pubis, vagina, vulva, penis, or anus.
Genital warts may be flesh-colored or a close variation of your skin color. They can also be brown or pink. The color of the warts may shift over time. Genital warts can diminish, and disappear, only to come back in another spot. As the warts disappear, the color of the skin may return to normal.
The surface of genital warts may be bumpy or rough when touched. They’re often described as having a “cauliflower” look.
Genital warts may appear as a single bump, or they can grow in small clusters. Additional warts may appear over time.
What causes these bumps and who’s at risk?
Although these bumps are often mistaken for one another based on visual appearance, they’re caused by entirely different things.
Genital skin tags
Almost half of adults will develop at least one skin tag in their life, but skin tags have no known cause. Several factors can increase your risk for developing them.
The most common risk factors for genital skin tags include:
- Friction. Skin-on-fabric contact from clothing or underwear can cause skin tags to develop. The frequent rubbing between clothes and skin can irritate the delicate skin of the genital area and cause these small growths. Friction from sexual intercourse may also cause genital skin tags.
- Pregnancy. Changes in hormonal levels during pregnancy can increase your risk. Warts can grow quickly during pregnancy.
- Obesity. People who are overweight or obese are more likely to develop skin tags. Excess weight increases surface area and skin friction, creating more areas where skin tags can develop.
- Type 2 diabetes. Skin tags can be a sign of type 2 diabetes or high insulin levels.
- Age. Skin tags are more common in people age 60 and older.
- Genetics. If you have family members who have skin tags, you may be more likely to develop them.
Unlike genital skin tags, doctors know exactly what causes genital warts: an infection of the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a type of sexually-transmitted infection, and it’s highly contagious.
More than 100 types of HPV have been identified. Of those, 40 infect the genital area, and two are responsible for genital warts.
HPV is very common. Nearly half of all people who are sexually active will contract some form of HPV. However, this may or may not be a wart-causing strain. If it is, it may be weeks or months before warts appear.
How are these bumps diagnosed?
If you’re not sure about the unusual growths on your genitals, it’s a good idea to see your doctor. If you suspect those skin spots are genital warts, or if you know you’ve been exposed to HPV, you should see your doctor right away.
To make a diagnosis, your doctor will conduct a physical exam and look at the bumps or growths. Your doctor may also order a biopsy.
For a biopsy, your doctor will remove one of the growths or bumps. They will freeze the area and this is often done in the office setting. They’ll send the tissue to a laboratory where it will be examined under a microscope. Your lab technician can usually make a diagnosis based on this visual assessment.
If the results are unclear, your doctor may order blood tests to identify other potential causes.
How are these bumps treated?
Skin tags may not need treatment. Unless they become irritated or cause you problems, it’s OK to leave skin tags in place.
You also do not have to treat genital warts. If you choose not to treat them, the warts can and likely will clear spontaneously.
If you choose to treat genital skin tags or genital warts, your options are frequently the same. These treatments include:
- Cryotherapy. Your doctor can use ultra-cold liquid nitrogen to freeze the skin tag or wart. The liquid nitrogen destroys the tissue, and the skin will fall away over time.
- Surgery. Your doctor can use a scalpel to remove both genital warts and skin tags.
- Laser. Directed rays of light can burn away the tag or wart. As the skin dies, it will fall away.
- Ligation. Your doctor can use a hot wire loop to cut away skin tags or tissue from the genitals during a loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP).
Can you prevent either of these bumps?
It isn’t clear why or how skin tags develop, so there’s no known way to prevent them from forming.
You can, however, try to prevent genital warts. Abstaining from sexual contact is the most reliable way to prevent contracting the virus and developing genital warts.
If you’re sexually active, you can decrease your risk for HPV by consistently practicing safe sex. This means wearing a condom every time you have sex.
You can also get the HPV vaccine. The vaccine helps protect against the most common HPV strains, including strains that cause genital warts or increase your risk for cervical cancer.
Although the vaccine is primarily recommended for teens and young adults, you can still get the vaccine if you’re over age 25. It may still have some protective benefit, talk to your doctor to make an informed decision.
What’s the outlook?
Treatments for both skin tags and warts are highly effective. However, even with treatment, there’s no guarantee new skin tags won’t develop.
And if you’re dealing with warts, treatment won’t cure you of HPV. The virus will remain in your body, which means you’ll experience genital wart outbreaks in the future.
Neither genital skin tags nor genital warts are considered serious conditions, and the bumps aren’t likely to become cancerous.
However, you should see your doctor if notice any unusual changes. This includes bleeding, change in size, or sudden color changes.