Genital warts

Expert reviewer, Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
Next review due July 2022

Genital warts are small, fleshy growths that can develop around your genital area and anus. They’re one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the UK, particularly in men and women under the age of 25.

Genital warts aren’t usually harmful to your health, but people often find them uncomfortable and don’t like the way they look. You can have treatment to get rid of them.

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About genital warts

Genital warts are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). There are over 100 types of HPV, but most warts are caused by type 6 or type 11. Other types of HPV are associated with cervical cancer, but these aren’t the same ones that cause genital warts. The number of people affected by genital warts is getting lower every year, due to the introduction of a vaccine against the infection. For more information on this see our section: Prevention of genital warts below.

How do you get genital warts?

You usually get genital warts through sexual contact with somebody else who has genital warts. This may be by vaginal or anal sex, but it can also be by close skin-to-skin contact. If HPV infects the skin around your genitals and anus, it can cause the cells to multiply faster than usual, which leads to warts.

You can have the HPV virus and pass it on even if you have no visible genital warts. Warts may appear months or even years after you’ve been exposed to the virus.

If you’re pregnant and have genital warts, you can pass them on to your baby when you give birth, although this is rare.

Symptoms of genital warts

Genital warts are fleshy growths that can range in size from a few millimetres to several centimetres. Their colour can vary from white to flesh-coloured or darker, and they can feel hard or soft. You might just get one wart or you can get several, that may join together.

In women, you might get genital warts:

  • on your vulva (the lips on the outside of your vagina)
  • inside or outside your vagina
  • on your cervix (neck of your womb)
  • inside your urethra (the tube that carries urine from your bladder and out through the vulva)
  • inside or outside your anus

In men, you might get genital warts:

  • on your penis (on or under your foreskin or on the shaft)
  • on your scrotum
  • inside your urethra
  • inside or outside your anus

It’s also possible to get warts (caused by the same virus) on your lips and in your mouth, nose or throat. But this doesn’t happen often.

Genital warts don’t usually cause any symptoms. But occasionally they might become painful, uncomfortable or itchy, and may bleed. If you have a wart in your urethra, it can affect the normal flow of urine when you pee.

Many people become infected with HPV without getting any genital warts. You can still pass on the virus even if you don’t have any visible genital warts. If you do get genital warts, they usually begin to grow three weeks to eight months after you’re infected. However, it can be as long as 18 months before warts appear.

Diagnosis of genital warts

If you think you have genital warts, book an appointment for a test at a sexual health clinic or genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic. You can make your own appointment to go to a sexual health or GUM clinic — you don’t need to see your GP. All visits are confidential, and your details won’t be sent to your GP without your consent. You can also see your GP for advice, but they’re likely to refer you to a sexual health or GUM clinic. These clinics have more specialist services available for testing and treating STIs.

When you go for your appointment, your doctor or nurse will ask you about your symptoms and your recent sexual history. They’ll then ask to examine your genital area, sometimes using a magnifying instrument to look more closely. If you’re a woman, they will usually want to examine inside your vagina using a speculum, to see if there are any genital warts there. If you have warts around your anus or have bleeding or discharge from your bottom, they may need to examine inside your anus. Your doctor or nurse will usually be able to tell if you have genital warts just by examining the affected area. Sometimes they’ll take a small sample of tissue (biopsy) from a genital wart to confirm the diagnosis, but this isn’t common.

If you have genital warts, there’s a chance that you might also have another sexually transmitted infection (STI). It’s a good idea to have any other tests you’re offered for other STIs at the same time.

Treatment of genital warts

Treatments for genital warts are aimed at removing any visible warts. They’re unlikely to get rid of the HPV virus itself, although your body will naturally clear this on its own in time.

If you don’t like how they look or they’re uncomfortable, you may want to get your warts treated. But it’s your decision whether or not to have any treatment — not everybody does. Genital warts can clear up on their own — about a third of people find that they’ve gone within six months. For more information, see our FAQ below: What if I don’t get treatment for genital warts?

Treatments for warts can often cause side-effects such as skin reactions, and they don’t always work straight away. Sometimes you might need more than one treatment to get rid of genital warts. And there’s a chance your warts may come back again because treatment doesn’t usually get rid of the HPV virus itself. For most people though, treatment will help your warts to go away more quickly and reduce the risk of you passing the virus on to someone else.

Types of treatment

If you do have treatment, the type you have will depend on the size of your warts, where they are and how many you have. The most common treatments for genital warts include the following.

  • Creams or ointments that you apply to your genital warts. You’ll usually be prescribed these to apply yourself at home. Your doctor will explain how to use your cream or ointment, and you’ll usually need to use it over several weeks.
  • Freezing your warts with liquid nitrogen (cryotherapy). You might need to return to repeat the cryotherapy every week for up to four weeks.
  • Laser therapy to break down your genital warts. Your doctor may recommend this if you have lots of warts or they’re in hard-to-reach areas such as inside your anus or vagina.
  • Heat treatment (eg, electrocautery) to burn off your genital warts. This can lead to some damage to the surrounding skin.
  • Having your warts cut out under local anaesthesia. Your doctor might suggest this if your warts are quite large or in difficult to reach places.

Your doctor will usually suggest you come for a check-up after you’ve finished your treatment, to see how well it’s worked. They may suggest an alternative treatment if you haven’t responded to the initial treatment. If you smoke, the treatments may not work as well as for non-smokers. Genital warts can be harder to treat if you have a weakened immune system — for instance if you have HIV or have had an organ transplant.

If you're pregnant

If you’re pregnant or think you might be, be sure to let the doctor or nurse know. Some treatments aren’t suitable for use while you’re pregnant, and your doctor will make sure they use a treatment that’s safest for you and your baby.

You may not always need treatment for genital warts if you’re pregnant. But your doctor may suggest it to reduce the chance of passing on the HPV virus to your baby when you give birth. It can also prevent any warts from obstructing your vagina and causing problems when you give birth.

Prevention of genital warts

Using a condom every time you have sex will reduce your risk of getting infected with HPV and developing warts. But condoms can’t completely prevent you from getting the infection, because the areas of skin around your genitals that aren’t covered can become infected.

Before you have sex with a new partner, it’s worth considering both being checked for sexually transmitted infections, including genital warts.

HPV vaccine

In the UK, all girls and boys in school year 8 (aged 12 to 13) are offered vaccination against HPV as part of the national immunisation programme. The vaccine that’s used is called Gardasil. It protects against HPV types 16 and 18 that cause cervical cancer in girls, and against types 6 and 11 that cause genital warts. Vaccination is also offered to all men who have sex with men aged 45 years or younger.

If you’re not eligible to have the HPV vaccine as part of the NHS vaccination programme, you may be able to pay to have it privately.

Frequently asked questions

  • Yes, you can still pass on HPV after you’ve had treatment for genital warts. But you’re more likely to do so if you have untreated warts.

    Treatments for genital warts are aimed at removing any visible warts. They’re unlikely to get rid of the HPV virus itself, although your body will naturally clear this in time. You can still pass on the HPV virus through skin-to-skin contact or through genital secretions, even if you don’t have warts. Getting treatment for your warts will reduce the risk of you passing the virus on though.

    Using condoms every time you have sex will also help to reduce the risk of passing on the infection.

  • No. Usually, genital warts are caused by HPV type 6 or 11. These HPV types do not cause cervical cancer. Certain other types of HPV, such as types 16 and 18 are associated with various cancers affecting your genitals and anus. This includes cervical, vaginal and anal cancer. These types of HPV don’t cause warts. It’s possible to get both types of HPV together though.

    You should go for cervical screening appointments as normal if you have or have had warts.

  • Genital warts often come back after treatment. New genital warts after treatment may be caused by the original infection or by a new infection. Your doctor may suggest the same treatment again or a different one — it depends on the size of the warts and where they are.

    Treatment to remove genital warts doesn't make you free from HPV, so there’s always a chance they could come back. If you’re worried about your warts coming back, ask to arrange a follow-up appointment at the clinic a few months after your treatment has finished.

  • Without treatment, genital warts can get bigger and you might get more of them — they can spread from one area to another. But it’s also possible that they may stay the same or disappear altogether. In about three in 10 people, the warts go away on their own within six months. Most warts will eventually clear up without any treatment.

    You don’t have to have any treatment for genital warts. But it’s a good idea to discuss your options with a doctor at a sexual health clinic. If you have genital warts, you’re more likely to pass the HPV infection on to someone else through sexual contact. This is possible even if you use condoms because they might not cover the affected area of skin. Treating them can help to reduce the risk of you passing them on to your partner.

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Related information

    • Genital warts. BMJ Best Practice., last reviewed May 2019
    • Warts – anogenital. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries., last revised April 2017
    • Sexually transmitted infections and screening for chlamydia in England, 2018. Health Protection Report. Public Health England, June 2019.
    • Genital warts. Family Planning Association, September 2017.
    • UK national guidelines on the management of anogenital warts, 2015. British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH), April 2015.
    • Anogenital warts., last reviewed 29 June 2015
    • The routine immunisation schedule. Public Health England, September 2018.
    • HPV vaccination programme. Information for healthcare practitioners. Public Health England, June 2019.
    • HPV vaccination programme for men who have sex with men (MSM). Public Health England, last updated 26 March 2019.
  • Reviewed by Pippa Coulter, Freelance Health Editor, July 2019
    Expert reviewer, Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
    Next review due July 2022