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Genital warts

Published by Bupa's Health Information Team, November 2011.

This section contains answers to common questions about this topic. Questions have been suggested by health professionals, website feedback and requests via email.

If I’m diagnosed with genital warts, do I need extra cervical smear tests or a human papilloma virus (HPV) test?

Answer

No, you won’t need extra smear tests. Having genital warts doesn’t increase your risk of getting cervical cancer because these conditions are caused by different HPV types. You should still have smear tests every three to five years. For further information about cervical smear tests, see Related topics. 

Explanation

All women aged between 25 and 64 are eligible for free cervical screening (smear) tests. Cervical screening tests can detect cell changes in your cervix (neck of the womb) before they turn cancerous, but having genital warts doesn't make you more likely to develop cervical cancer.

You will be tested for HPV in an 'HPV triage' system. This means that if you’re found to have borderline or low-grade cervical abnormalities in your smear test, you will automatically have an HPV test carried out on the same sample of cells collected during the smear test. You won’t need any additional examinations at this stage. If HPV is found, you will be referred for a colposcopy (this involves using a special instrument, called a colposcope, to look in detail at abnormal cells in the cervix). If HPV isn’t found, you will be asked to attend routine screening every three or five years depending on your age.

Is it safe to treat genital warts in pregnant women?

Answer

Genital warts can be treated in pregnant women. You must tell your doctor that you’re pregnant or think that you could be because the treatment you’re offered needs to be safe for your developing baby. Some of the usual medicines used to treat genital warts aren’t suitable if you’re pregnant.

Explanation

Genital warts can appear for the first time or reappear during pregnancy after years with no warts. They may also increase in size and number during pregnancy and so become more noticeable at this time. Genital warts don’t usually cause a problem during pregnancy, but you may need to have them treated if they are in your vagina and could interfere with childbirth. Rarely, the HPV infection can be passed to your baby during childbirth, which could cause him or her to have warts in the throat or genital area. Your baby would need treatment for these.

One option for treating genital warts during pregnancy is having cryotherapy, where liquid nitrogen is used to freeze the genital warts. Another option is surgery to remove the genital warts.

Certain medicines, such as imiquimod and podophyllotoxin, aren’t suitable as they could harm your baby’s development. You also shouldn’t use over-the-counter treatments that are meant for warts on your hands and feet as these aren’t designed to be used in the genital area.

Speak to your doctor or obstetrician (a doctor who specialises in pregnancy and childbirth) if you’re concerned about treatment for genital warts.

What happens if genital warts come back after treatment?

Answer

Genital warts can come back after treatment. If they do, you can be treated again. 

Explanation

New genital warts that come back after treatment may be caused by the original infection or a new infection from a partner. You can be treated again, so if the first treatment didn’t work, you can try a different one or a combination of treatments.

Infection with the types of HPV that cause genital warts happens by skin-to-skin contact during unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex, or by sharing sex toys. If you have genital contact with an infected partner, you can get HPV even if you don't have sex. The virus can be passed on even if the infected person has no symptoms. Removing the genital warts doesn't mean you're free from HPV.

What happens if I don't have the genital warts treated?

Answer

Without treatment, your genital warts may increase in size or number, or they may clear up and disappear. 

Explanation

You may choose not to have treatment. However, it’s important to discuss your options with your GP or with a doctor at a sexual health clinic.

While you have visible genital warts, you may be more likely to pass the HPV infection on to someone else through sexual contact. This is possible even when using condoms correctly because they may not cover the affected area.

Genital warts can cause problems if you become pregnant or if you have an illness that affects your immune system, such as HIV/AIDS, or are being treated for cancer. The genital warts may grow larger in size or number and you may not clear the virus as quickly as someone with a healthy immune system. This can increase your risk of passing on the infection to someone else.

Treating genital warts can help to reduce the risk of you passing them on to your partner (or for pregnant women, to their baby during delivery).

Can I pass on HPV after I’ve been treated for genital warts and they have gone away?

Answer

Yes, you can still pass on HPV, but this is more likely when you still have untreated genital warts. By using condoms every time you have sex you can help to reduce the risk of passing on the infection. 

Explanation

All the time you have the HPV infection you can pass on the virus. You can still be carrying HPV even after your genital warts have been treated. Your immune system usually clears the infection, but if you have a weakened immune system, for example, because you have HIV/AIDS or are being treated for cancer, this may take longer – this means you have a greater risk of passing on the infection.

Can HPV affect my fertility?

Answer

No, HPV that causes genital warts hasn’t been shown to affect fertility in men or women. 

Explanation

HPV types that cause genital warts don't affect fertility. However, in women, some types of HPV have been associated with cervical cancer. A smear test is designed to look for changes in cells in the cervix (neck of the womb) that may go on to become cancerous. In this way, it can be treated before cancer develops. Cervical cancer and its treatment can affect fertility.

Will the HPV vaccine be offered to older girls, women or men?

Answer

At present, the HPV vaccine against types 16 and 18 is offered to girls aged 12 to 13, there are no plans to extend this vaccination to other groups. 

Explanation

The HPV vaccine is effective in preventing the two types of HPV infection that cause most cervical cancers. It’s only effective in girls who aren’t already infected with the virus.

As HPV is so common, most sexually active women will already have been infected. Therefore, vaccination wouldn't be useful because the vaccine isn't thought to reduce the risk of developing cervical cancer in women who are already infected. There are no plans to offer the vaccine to women older than 18. Research is continuing, and, in a few years time, we will know more about the effects of the vaccine.

The vaccine isn't being offered to boys or men because the main purpose of this vaccination is to prevent cervical cancer. It isn’t necessary to vaccinate men for this to be effective. Trials are taking place to see whether vaccination of young men with the vaccine against HPV types 6, 11, 16 and 18 is effective in reducing the risk of genital warts.

 

For our main content on this topic, see Information.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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  • Publication date: November 2011

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