What are genital warts?

Genital warts are a common infection caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is found on the skin of men and women who are infected.

They are small fleshy and usually painless growths, bumps or skin changes that appear on or around the genitals and surrounding areas. However, they can be unpleasant to look at and can be distressing for some people with the infection.

Listen to Jill Ladlow, one of our expert Sexual Health Nurses, give an overview on genital warts in the video below. She explains about symptoms, how people catch it, how you can get tested and what the treatment usually involves.

What are the symptoms?

Many people often have no symptoms and can carry the virus for years before the body naturally gets rid of it. However, because there are often no symptoms. people can pass on the infection without knowing.

Genital warts can look very different from one person to another when they do appear but tend to be flat or smooth small bumps or quite large, pink, cauliflower-like clusters of bumps. They can be so small it is hard to see and shouldn’t cause any pain but can sometimes be itchy and irritated.

In men, common places to see warts appear are:

  • Anywhere on the penis or scrotum (bit between your legs)
  • Around or inside the anus (bottom)

In women, common places to see warts appear are:

  • Around the entrance to the vagina and vulva (lips)
  • Around or inside the anus (bottom)

How do you catch them?

Genital warts are passed on through having sex without a condom with someone who has the virus. You don’t need to have penetrative sex to pass on the virus, it can also be passed on through skin-to-skin contact if the infected area is not fully covered by a condom. Similarly, genital warts can spread through the sharing of sex toys if not covered with a condom and washed between use, and (rarely) from mother to baby.

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

How do you prevent them?

If you’re sexually active, using a condom every time you have sex can reduce your risk as long as it is put on before the genitals touch and covers the whole infected area. A female condom covers a wider area so may be more useful for some people.

There is an HPV vaccine available through the NHS but this is currently only offered for free to girls aged 12 to 13 years. The vaccine protects against four types of HPV and two of these are linked with cancer of the cervix. Even if you have been vaccinated, it is important for women to have their routine cervical smear test through their GP starting from the age of 25 in England.

How can you get tested?

There are no tests available to diagnose genital warts. It is a clinical diagnosis which means that your doctor or nurse will diagnose you based on a genital examination.

What treatment is available?

Warts are treated for cosmetic reasons (because you don’t like them) and not because your health is at risk because of them. You will only be given treatment if you have visible warts on your genitals or surrounding areas. Treatment is normally either with a cream or lotion applied directly to the affected area or by physically removing the wart through freezing.

Whichever treatment you have, it’s important to realise that the warts won’t disappear overnight. They may also come back and need treatment again.

It is essential that you tell your nurse or doctor what medications you’re taking, and if you’re pregnant, could be pregnant or are breast feeding as this could affect the treatment plan.

If you have genital warts and your partner is experiencing symptoms, it is very important to encourage them to get tested so they can get the treatment they need. If you prefer, your sexual health service can support you in how to tell your partner.

Useful links

  • NHS Choices has lots of information about STIs including a specific page on genital warts
  • Brook has more information and advice on STIs written for people under 25, including genital warts
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