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Genital warts

Genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) and are small growths or bumps that appear on or around the genital or anal area.

Genital warts  are the second most common type of sexually transmitted infections (STI) in under 25s in the UK, after chlamydia.

Here are some key facts:

  • Genital warts are caused by a viral skin infection, caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) but not everyone with the virus will develop genital warts
  • There are over 100 different types of HPV which can affect different parts of the body. About 30 different types of HPV can affect the genital skin but 90% of genital warts are caused by two types of the virus (types 6 and 11)
  • Genital warts are not caused by the same virus that causes warts on hands or verrucas on the feet
  • Genital warts are spread by skin-to-skin contact
  • You don’t need to have penetrative sex to pass on genital warts but they can be passed on during vaginal or anal sex, or by sharing sex toys 
  • They are usually painless but look unpleasant and this can be distressing
  • Certain strains of HPV (16 and 18) can cause cell changes that can lead to cervical cancer.  There is a vaccination programme that is offered to all girls aged 12 – 13 to protect against some of the different strains of HPV. The vaccine that is now often used offers protection against the two types of HPV (16 & 18) and also offers protection against developing genital warts 
  • Genital warts can take months or years to develop after infection so it does not necessarily mean your partner has been having sex with other people
  • Genital warts can be passed on even if they are not visible
  • Treatment will depend on how many you have but may involve creams or freezing (cryotherapy)
  • You should not use the wart creams that are available over the counter because they are designed to only treat warts on the hands or verrucas
  • Diagnosis involves a health professional examining the area 

You can read about genital warts in more detail below.

Signs and symptoms of genital warts

Most people who have a HPV infection don’t have any visible symptoms and it can be months or even years before genital warts appear. This can make for a tricky conversation with your partner.

If warts do appear, they can either appear on their own, or in clusters a bit like a cauliflower. They are normally painless but in some people they can be itchy and may become inflamed which may lead to a little bleeding.

The commonest places for them to appear are:

  • Around the opening of the vagina (vulva)
  • Around the cervix (the neck of the womb)
  • Inside the vagina
  • Around or inside the anus
  • On the upper thighs
  • Anywhere on the penis
  • On the scrotum
  • Inside the urethra (where urine comes out) – in men

The causes and how it is passed on

The most common way for HPV (the virus that causes genital warts) to be passed on is through skin-to-skin contact with someone who has the virus.

Most commonly, this close body contact is as part of sexual activity such as vaginal or anal sex, non-penetrative genital-to-genital contact, sharing sex toys and rarely, oral sex.

HPV is not passed on by kissing, hugging or sharing towels and clothing or via everyday items such as cutlery or toilet seats.

Condoms can help protect you from HPV but the virus may still be passed on by the surrounding genital areas coming into contact.

Testing for genital warts

If you suspect you have genital warts or if a partner has them, you need to visit a Brook service, a GUM or sexual health clinic or your local GP surgery.

There is no test for genital warts but it is easy for a doctor or nurse to diagnose by examining the area. In some cases, a doctor or nurse may wish to perform a more detailed examination in order to see if there are warts inside the vagina or anus.

Treatment of genital warts

You will only be offered treatment if you have visible warts. The two main types of treatment for genital warts are:

  • applying cream or lotion to the warts 
  • destroying the tissue of the warts by freezing, heating or removing them

The type of treatment depends on the warts. Cream or lotion can be better on softer warts but the other treatment is recommended if they are hard or rough-feeling.

You can read detailed information about the creams and lotions that may be prescribed and about the freezing, heating or removal treatment on NHS Choices. 

For some people it can take months for the treatment to work and for the warts to disappear.

You should tell the doctor or nurse that you are pregnant or if there is a risk of pregnancy as this may affect the treatment they offer you

It is recommended that you avoid having sex until your genital warts have fully healed. Not only will this help to ensure you don’t pass it on to others but it may also help you recover more quickly. 

Over time, genital warts will go away without treatment but if left untreated, they may also grow larger or multiply. They are rarely harmful to your health but genital warts can look unpleasant and may cause discomfort.

Page last reviewed: July 2015
Next review due: July 2017