Genital warts

Genital warts are the result of a viral infection. Warts are small fleshy growths, bumps or skin changes that appear on or around the genital, anal and throat area.

Most visible genital warts are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) types 6 and 11. These infections are common and very rarely cause any serious health problems. It is estimated that over 50% of sexually active people aged 15-49 have been infected with a genital wart virus.

How is it passed on?

You can get infected with genital HPV through skin to skin contact, including vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus.

The virus will not pass through a condom but as condoms do not cover all of the genital area it is possible to infect genital skin that is not covered by the condom.

Warts can spread from the genital area to the area around the anus without having anal sex.

You cannot get genital warts from sharing baths or towels, from swimming pools, toilet seats or from sharing cups, plates or cutlery.

Symptoms

Most people with HPV infection will not develop visible warts and the virus will go away on its own.

This means you may not know whether you or your partner have the virus.

If warts do appear, this can happen from 6 months to a year after coming into contact with the virus.

You might notice small, fleshy growths, bumps or skin changes which may appear anywhere in or on the genital, anal or throat area. They might be inside the vagina or anus, so may not be immediately visible.

Genital warts are usually painless but may occasionally itch and cause some inflammation, or bleeding from the anus or the urethra (the tube that carries urine).

Long term effects

It is rare for genital warts to cause any long term health problems.

Treatment

You will only be offered treatment if you have visible warts. The aim of treatment is only to remove visible warts. It will not clear the infection from your body completely. This means that the warts may come back.

Treatment may include the freezing of the warts by a health professional or creams or liquids prescribed for home use.

Wart treatments sold at the pharmacy are not suitable for use in the genital area.

Telling your partner

If you have visible genital warts then it is a good idea to talk to your current partner about the infection and avoid any skin to skin contact with the infected area, until you have completed treatment.

How to avoid genital warts

Condoms can help prevent the spread of genital warts, but do not prevent infection from contact with other parts of the anus or genitals that are not covered by the condom.

Avoid sharing sex toys. If you do share them, wash them or cover them with a new condom before anyone else uses them.

The main thing that prevents visible warts developing is your immune system’s response to the virus. If the immune system is preventing the virus from replicating quickly then there are usually no visible warts. Reducing the amount you smoke and drink, as well as living a healthy balanced lifestyle can help support your immune system to fight the virus effectively.

Where to get tested

You can visit a sexual health clinic or your GP. A health professional will be able to tell you whether the lumps are genital warts and if you need treatment. They can also discuss home and clinic treatment options with you.

Questions?

No. The types of HPV that cause genital warts do not cause cancer.

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You might see or feel them, or your partner might notice them. Often they are so tiny, or so difficult to see, that you don’t even know you have them.

They can be flat or smooth small bumps or quite large, pink, cauliflower-like lumps. Warts can appear on their own or in groups.

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Yes, once the visible warts have gone the virus may continue to live in the cells of the skin for some time (sometimes for years) and may cause warts again at a later stage.

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No, warts do not affect fertility.

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It is more common to pass on warts when they are present, but they can pass on before the warts appear and once they have gone.

Genital warts are one of the most common STIs. Although they are not nice to look at, they do not cause any serious problems.

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