Genital warts

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 or the anal area. 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

  • get the HPV vaccine. This is free on the NHS up to the age of 25, and for some other groups up to the age of 45. As well as protecting against some cancers, it also protects against the main strains of HPV that cause genital warts. Find out more about this vaccine.

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. Your clinician will talk to you about the options available to you.

Types of treatment include:

  • a cream or liquid that you apply yourself, at home

  • freezing the warts (cryotherapy), laser therapy or electrosurgery - a doctor or nurse will do this in clinic

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.

How long do genital warts last?

For some people the warts disappear after using treatment for 3-4 weeks. But it can take longer for them to go away.

If you have lots of warts or who have warts around the anus, these can take longer to clear. Genital warts can also last longer if your immune system is suppressed or weakened. Your immune system can be affected when you're unwell, stressed, you smoke or you are pregnant. If you're a smoker, it's also more likely that the warts will come after the first outbreak.

It can be common for warts to come back in the first 3 months after you have cleared them, because there is still HPV on the skin. When you have an outbreak, avoid shaving the area as this can spread the HPV over the skin and new warts can develop.

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. You should also make sure you're up-to-date with your STI tests.

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