Genital warts are a common sexually transmitted infection and rarely cause serious health problems. The warts are small fleshy bumps or lumps that can appear around the genitals, anus or throat. Genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). This virus can be passed on during sex.
There are hundreds of types of HPV. The type that causes genital warts is not the same as the type that can lead to cancer that's picked up in cervical screenings.
How do you get genital warts?
The virus that causes genital warts, HPV, can be passed on even when no warts are visible.
You can get warts from:
skin-to-skin contact, including during sex
sharing sex toys
during oral sex, though this is rare
Warts cannot be transmitted in saliva, sweat or urine. So you cannot get it from kissing or sharing cutlery, towels or toilet seats.
Symptoms of genital warts
Most people with HPV infection will not get warts. This means you can have the virus without knowing. For most people, including if you have visible warts, the virus will clear from the body over time.
If you do see warts, they will look like small bumps. If they’re in the anus, or inside the vagina, you might not know they are there. The warts are usually painless but might itch and cause some bleeding.
You might only get noticeable warts once, although a lot of people find they come back.
If you have any symptoms of warts, like 1 or more bumps around your anus or genitals, you should visit your local sexual health clinic or speak to your GP.
Getting tested for genital warts
There’s no routine test for genital warts. To find out if you have warts and need treatment, you’ll need to contact a health professional. They'll take a look at your skin and ask about your symptoms.
You can use our online diagnosis service to check for warts or herpes if it’s available in your area. Alternatively, you can see a clinician in a sexual health clinic or at your GP.
For our online service, you’ll need to answer a few questions about your symptoms and upload some photos of the affected area.
Our clinical team will be in touch over text message to confirm your diagnosis. And we can send you treatment by post. If at-home treatment isn’t right for you, our team will help you find treatment locally.
How to prevent genital warts
You can stop the spread of HPV and warts by:
using a condom when you have vaginal, anal or oral sex – but remember, some areas of skin will not be covered by the condom, so chances of skin-to-skin transmission are reduced but not eliminated
not sharing sex toys, or cleaning or covering them with a condom before they’re used by another person
not having sex when you or your partner are being treated for genital warts
You can get free condoms at sexual health clinics.
Treatment for genital warts
Only visible genital warts can be treated. The virus that causes them cannot be treated and will stay in your body even when the warts have gone. This means that warts can come back.
It's possible that your body will fight the virus over time and will be able to clear it, which means warts will not come back.
The treatment you’re given will depend on what the warts look like and where they are.
Types of treatment include:
a cream or liquid that you apply yourself
freezing the warts - a doctor or nurse will do this
Wart treatment that you can buy in a chemist or pharmacy should not be used on the genitals.
If you’re pregnant or trying to get pregnant, talk to your healthcare provider about wart treatment. Topical treatments you do at home can be harmful to pregnancy so you must not use these.
Telling your partners
If you have visible genital warts then it's a good idea to talk to your partner and the people you have sex with about the infection. They should avoid touching the infected area until you’ve finished treatment.