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What are genital warts?

A photo of Naveen Puri
Associate Clinical Director, and Lead Medical Appraiser, Bupa Global & UK
26 April 2022
Next review due April 2025

Genital warts are a very common sexually transmitted infection. They’re caused by infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV). But are HPV and genital warts the same thing? And what do genital warts look like? Here I’ll answer some of the most common questions about genital warts.

What are the symptoms of genital warts?

Genital warts are small, flesh-coloured growths that appear in your genital or anal area. They can appear on their own or in clusters, and range in size from tiny (a few millimetres) to larger lumps. Sometimes they can be itchy, and they might become red or sore too.

How serious are genital warts?

Genital warts don’t tend to be harmful to your health. You might find them uncomfortable though, or feel embarrassed about how they look. You may also develop more warts over time, and they might get larger in size. You also risk spreading them to partners if you don’t get them treated. It’s possible for untreated genital warts to transform into a type of cancer. But this is very rare.

What causes genital warts?

Genital warts are caused by two particular types of the human papilloma virus (HPV) – HPV types 6 and 11. HPV and genital warts are not the same thing. You can be infected with HPV but not develop warts. But you’re more likely to pass the virus on if you do have warts. HPV is passed on through sexual contact. This can be during vaginal or anal sex. But it can also just be through close genital contact, without actually having sex.

How do you get tested for genital warts?

If you think you may have genital warts, you can get checked at a genitourinary medicine (GUM) or sexual health clinic. You can ask at your GP practice too. It’s always worth being tested if you think you could have been exposed to an STI, even if you don’t have any symptoms. This might be if you’ve had unprotected sex with a new partner, or if a regular partner tells you they have an STI.

A doctor or nurse can diagnose genital warts by checking the affected area and examining any warts. They may need to look inside your vagina or anus.

How are genital warts treated?

Genital warts can go away on their own, without treatment. But this can take a long time for some people. Your doctor or nurse may recommend one of several treatment options to help get rid of them. These include the following genital warts treatments.

  • Applying a cream or liquid to the warts. You can usually do this yourself at home.
  • Freezing warts off with liquid nitrogen (cryotherapy).
  • Using heat to destroy the warts (electrocautery).
  • Cutting the warts out with simple surgery, under local anaesthesia.
  • Using laser therapy to destroy the warts.

Which treatment your nurse or doctor suggests will depend on how many warts you have, how big they are and where they’re located.

It’s a good idea to tell any current or recent sexual partners if you have genital warts. They might want to get checked for genital warts and other STIs too.

Is there a vaccine for genital warts?

There’s a vaccine that protects against various strains of HPV. It helps to protect against cervical cancer, anal cancer and cancers of the mouth and throat, when they’re caused by HPV. It protects against the strains of HPV that cause genital warts too. The vaccine is routinely offered to boys and girls aged 12 to 13. It’s also available free of charge to men who have sex with men up to the age of 45, at sexual health and HIV clinics. You can also pay to get the vaccine at a sexual health clinic.

How to stop genital warts spreading

There are many other things you can do to lower your risk of getting or passing on genital warts, as well as other STIs.

  • Use a condom whenever you have vaginal, oral or anal sex with a penis.
  • During oral sex, you can use a latex square (dental dam) to cover the anus and vaginal opening, including the area around it.
  • Don’t share sex toys. If you do, wash them well or cover them with a new condom before anyone else uses them.
  • Before you have unprotected sex with somebody new, have a test for STIs.
A photo of Naveen Puri
Dr Naveen Puri
Associate Clinical Director, and Lead Medical Appraiser, Bupa Global & UK

    • Genital warts. Sexwise. www.sexwise.org.uk, last updated May 2020
    • Genital warts. BMJ Best Practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last reviewed 19 March 2022
    • Leslie SW, Sajjad H and Kumar S. Genital warts. StatPearls Publishing. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books, published 14 February 2022
    • HPV vaccination guidance for healthcare practitioners (version 6). UK Health Security Agency. www.gov.uk, last updated 7 April 2022

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