The Oldest Profession

Genital warts


What are genital warts?

Genital warts are the most common sexually transmitted infection. They are caused by a virus known as the human papilloma virus (HPV). There are more than 100 different types of HPV, some causing visible and invisible warts on the hands, feet or genital areas. This information is only about genital warts.

A few types of wart virus are linked to changes in the cells in the cervix, which could lead to cervical cancer many years later. Women should have regular cervical screening tests whether or not they have genital warts. Visible genital warts are not linked to cervical cancer and women who have had them do not need cervical screening tests more often than other women.

How are they passed on?Genital warts can be passed from one person to another during sex, and by skin-to-skin contact with someone who has the wart virus. The virus can remain in the body and be passed on before warts are noticeable, or after they have disappeared.

Warts can be external or internal. In women, warts can be found on or in the vagina, vulva (the lips around the opening to the vagina), cervix and anus. In men, warts can be found on or around the penis, scrotum and urethra, and on or inside the anus.

The virus can spread if you have vaginal or anal sex, or share sex toys. Sometimes the virus can be passed on just by close intimate contact. It is possible, but unusual, to develop warts in the mouth or on the lips from oral sex. In rare cases, it is possible for a pregnant woman to pass the virus to her baby at birth.

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

What are the signs and symptoms?

Male genital warts

Female genital warts

Most people infected will not have any visible signs or symptoms at all. It can take from two weeks to several months after coming into contact with the virus before warts appear. If you do get visible warts you might notice small, fleshy growths, bumps or skin changes which may appear anywhere in the genital or anal area, either externally on the skin or internally.

You might see or feel them, or they may be noticed by your partner or during a vaginal examination. They can be smooth, flat, large or small and appear singly or in groups. They are usually painless, sometimes they may itch and cause inflammation which can then bleed.

Tests and treatment

If you think you could have the virus, go for a check up. Testing is free on the NHS from genitourinary medicine clinics, sexual health clinics or general practice. You can be checked any time after you think you may have been in contact with the virus. If there are no visible warts, you may be asked to come back at a later time.

If warts are suspected you will have an examination of the whole genital area, including the anus. They might use a solution of weak vinegar over the area as this can help detect warts. A new type of cervical screening test is being introduced which can diagnose the wart virus. From 2008, young women will be able to be vaccinated against cervical cancer and the wart virus.

There are a range of treatments for visible warts depending on where and how many warts there are, including:

  • Special cream or liquid put onto the warts. This can be done at the clinic or at home. Do not use wart preparations that you can buy from the pharmacy, these will not work on genital warts
  • Heat treatment to burn them off, freezing them or using a laser
  • Surgery to remove them
  • Injecting a drug directly into the wart - this is less common

The treatments can be uncomfortable but should not be painful. If you are pregnant, or trying to get pregnant, tell the doctor so they can choose a treatment that won’t be harmful to the developing baby.

Although the treatment is simple it may have to be repeated several times as warts can be stubborn. As the virus cannot be removed completely from the body, warts may recur.

What happens if warts are not treated?

If left untreated, warts may disappear, stay the same or grow larger in size or number. They remain infectious.

Advice and support

You can go to your general practice, a genitourinary medicine clinic or a sexual health clinic. All services are confidential.

You can also call the fpa helpline on 0845 122 8690.


Article originally published by the BBC based on information from the FPA