Genital warts are a common sexually transmitted infection caused by a virus called Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).
This virus is passed on through direct skin-to-skin contact with someone who has HPV on their skin. It can be passed from person to person during vaginal and anal sex. It's also rarely passed on through oral sex.
How do you get genital warts?
You get genital warts by touching your genitals with someone else’s genitals who carries the HPV virus. The virus may be present on the skin but no actual warts can be seen.
You can get warts even if you use condoms or don’t have penetrative sex, as a condom does not cover all of the genital skin.
Symptoms of genital warts
If you have genital warts, you may notice lumps or growths around your vagina, penis or anus that were not there before. However, you can carry the virus without developing actual warts.
You may develop symptoms years after you have been in contact with the virus so it isn’t possible to know when you came in contact with HPV.
It's common for warts to appear or re-appear during pregnancy due to a change in how the immune system manages the virus.
Testing for genital warts
A healthy immune system is usually able to clear the virus, or suppress it, over time. This means that eventually the warts would be cured.
If you think you may have genital warts you should make an appointment with your GP or contact your local sexual health services.
It’s important that warts are diagnosed by a doctor or nurse.
Online appointment booking
You may be able to book an appointment for an STI test online using the online booking system. This varies for different NHS board areas.
Treating genital warts
Treatment for genital warts needs to be prescribed by a doctor or nurse.
The type of treatment you'll be offered depends on what your warts are like. The doctor or nurse will discuss this with you. Treatment options include:
- cream or liquid
Cream or liquid
You can usually apply this to the warts yourself a few times a week for several weeks.
A doctor or nurse freezes the warts with liquid nitrogen, usually every week for 4 weeks.
A doctor or nurse can cut, burn or laser the warts off. This is usually only recommended if the warts are not responding or are too large for cream or freezing. Side effects of these treatments include:
- wound infection
Recurring genital warts
Warts can come back after you have managed to get rid of them. This may happen weeks, months or years after they first appeared.
You can try and prevent this by keeping yourself and your immune system as healthy as possible by eating well and exercising.
Smoking reduces your chances of clearing the virus, so it is advised you stop smoking.
In some people the treatment doesn't work. There's no cure for genital warts but it's possible for your body to clear the virus over time.
Avoiding passing on genital warts to a partner
Using a condom every time you have vaginal, anal or oral sex is the best way to avoid passing on genital warts to a partner. However, if the virus is present on skin not protected by a condom, it can still be passed on.
Your doctor or nurse may advise you to avoid sex while you're having treatment for genital warts.
Reducing the risk of genital warts
To reduce your risk of getting genital warts you should use a condom for vaginal, anal and oral sex.
You can get warts even if you use condoms, as a condom does not cover the whole genital area.
The HPV vaccination will reduce your risk of getting HPV virus which causes warts.
HPV and cancer
Genital warts are not cancer and don't cause cancer. They're caused by a different strain of HPV.
The HPV vaccine offered to girls and boys in the UK to protect against cervical cancer also protects against genital warts.
The HPV vaccine is also offered to men who have sex with men (MSM) and trans people aged up to 45 years.
If you didn't have the vaccine at school and don’t fulfil the above eligibility criteria, you can purchase the vaccine privately.
Speak to your GP or local sexual health clinic for further information.