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Genital warts

Human papilloma virus (HPV)

What are genital warts?

Genital warts are small, fleshy growths, bumps or skin changes anywhere on the genitals or around the anus. They can appear as a single wart or as multiple warts in a cluster. They are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV).Did you know? Unsafe sex also puts you at risk of HIV

How do you get genital warts?

HPV can be passed on via vaginal, anal and very rarely, oral sex and also genital-to-genital contact as well as by sharing sex toys.

Condoms are the most effective way to avoid getting genital warts. However, they do not provide 100% protection as HPV can spread by skin-to-skin contact around the genital area not covered by the condom.1

Vaccines are also available to protect girls against certain types of HPV that can cause genital warts or cervical cancer. Even if you have received HPV vaccinations, continue to go to cervical screening (smear tests) as the vaccines do not guarantee that you will not develop cervical cancer or genital warts in the future. Vaccines are most beneficial before you start having sex.1

If you are worried, or think you have genital warts, visit your doctor or healthcare worker.

What do genital warts look like?

Most people infected with HPV will not develop any visible warts. If they do appear, it can take several weeks to several years after coming into contact with the virus.

The most common places for warts to develop in women are:

  • around the vulva (the opening of the vagina)
  • on the cervix (the entrance to the womb)
  • inside the vagina
  • around or inside the anus
  • on the upper thighs.

And in men:

  • on the penis
  • on the scrotum
  • inside the urethra (the tube that urine flows through)
  • around or inside the anus
  • on the upper thighs.2

You shouldn't use pictures to diagnose genital warts. See your doctor or healthcare worker if you develop any symptoms.

Can I get tested for genital warts?

A doctor or health worker can quickly diagnose genital warts. Depending on where they are, you may need a more detailed examination. To check for hidden genital warts, the doctor may carry out a painless internal examination of the vagina, cervix and/or anus.

If you have a problem urinating, a specialist may look at the urethra.3

How are genital warts treated?

Treatment for genital warts depends on the type of warts you have and where they are.

There are two main types of treatment:

  • applying a cream, lotion or chemicals to the warts
  • destroying the warts by freezing, heating or removing them.4

The effectiveness of treatment depends on the treatment used, the size and type of warts, and how good your immune system is at fighting off the virus. Your doctor or healthcare worker will advise you on the best course of treatment.

For some people, it takes several months to remove the warts, so it is important to be persistent and patient. You may also be advised to avoid soaps, creams and lotions while you are having treatment as these can irritate the skin.4

If you are pregnant, or think you might be, tell the doctor or healthcare worker as this may affect the type of treatment you are given.5

Do not have sex until your warts have fully healed as you may pass them to your partner.

Complications of genital warts

  • HPV and cervical cancer

There are over 100 strains of HPV virus - two of them, (type 6 and type 11) cause most cases of genital warts but are unlikely to lead cervical cancer. However, high-risk strains such as type 16 and type 18, may lead to cervical cancer. This is why it is important that women have regular smear tests.6

  • Pregnancy issues

Genital warts can make urinating and giving birth difficult. A mother can also pass HPV to her baby during childbirth.7

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/xrender

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Page last reviewed:
01 May 2015
Next review date:
01 November 2016