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Genital warts symptoms & treatment

Human papilloma virus (HPV)

FAST FACTS

  • Genital warts are usually found around the penis, vagina, anus (bottom) or upper thighs.
  • They’re caused by a sexually transmitted virus that can be passed on through sex without a condom or by sharing sex toys.
  • Genital warts can be prevented by using condoms, dental dams and latex gloves.
  • A simple physical examination carried out by a healthcare professional will tell you if you have genital warts.
  • There's no cure for the virus that causes genital warts, but the warts themselves can be treated and removed.

If you have had sex without a condom, or you are worried about genital warts or other STIs, get tested as soon as possible.

What are genital warts?

Genital warts are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). There are over 100 different strains of HPV. Some strains have been linked to increased risk of anal or cervical cancer, however these are different from the strains of HPV that cause genital warts. There is no association between genital warts and cancer.

Genital warts are small, raised, usually painless growths (that sometimes look a bit like cauliflowers). Unlike sores, these growths are not normally painful and don’t bleed or pus. They can appear as a single wart or as multiple warts in a cluster.

How serious are genital warts?

The warts themselves can be treated and got rid of, but the virus that causes them will remain and cannot be cured. This means that many people with genital warts will experience repeat outbreaks. However, the warts are not usually painful. They don’t cause any other health problems.  

How do you get genital warts?

Genital warts are passed on from someone who has the virus. People with the virus can pass it on even if they don’t have any symptoms.

You can get them from:

  • vaginal or anal sex without a condom or dental dam
  • oral sex without a condom or dental dam if the person has warts in their mouths or throat (although this is very rare)
  • sharing sex toys that aren't washed or covered with a new condom each time they are used
  • close genital contact – this means you can get genital warts from someone if your genitals touch, even if there is no penetration, orgasm or ejaculation.

It’s possible for warts on the hands to be passed to the genitals, but this is very rare.

Genital warts can also be passed from mother to baby at birth, but again this is very uncommon.

You can’t get genital warts from kissing, hugging, swimming pools, sharing towels or sharing cutlery.

Genital warts, HIV and sexual health

  • Having an STI, including genital warts, increases your risk of getting HIV.
  • If you’re living with HIV and also have genital warts, your viral load is likely to increase because your immune system is weakerThis will make you more likely to pass on HIV if you have sex without a condom.
  • If someone living with HIV also has genital warts, their viral load will increase, which will make them more likely to pass on HIV during unprotected sex, even if they are taking antiretroviral treatment (ART).
  • However, if someone has an undetectable viral load, there’s no evidence that genital warts makes you more likely to pass on HIV.
  • If you are taking antiretroviral treatment it is important to discuss with your healthcare professional how treatment for genital warts may interact with your HIV drugs.

How do you protect yourself and others from getting genital warts?

  • Use a new male or female condom or dental dam every time you have vaginal, anal or oral sex. Remember – these must cover the warts or you will not be protected.
  • Use a new dental dam or latex gloves for rimming and fingering (exploring your partner’s anus with your fingers, mouth or tongue) or use latex gloves for fisting.
  • Cover sex toys with a new condom and wash them after use.
  • Avoid rubbing or touching the wart, in case your spread the infection to the surrounding area.
  • Having multiple sexual partners can also increase your risk of getting genital warts. If you are having sex with multiple partners, it’s even more important to use condoms and have regular STI tests.

Talking about sexual health, and sharing your sexual health status with your partners, can help you have safer sex.

  • Get vaccinated
    • In some places vaccines are available to protect girls against certain types of HPV that can cause genital warts. It is best to have the vaccines before you start having sex.
    • The vaccines do not guarantee that you will not develop genital warts in the future.

Note condoms are the best protection against sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. Taking PrEP doesn’t prevent genital warts or pregnancy.

Speak to your healthcare professional for more advice.

What do genital wart symptoms look like?

Most people with the virus that causes genital warts (HPV) will not develop any visible warts. If you do get symptoms you may not notice them until several weeks or several years after coming into contact with the virus.

Symptoms include:

  • one or more small, flesh-coloured or grey painless growths or lumps around your vagina, penis, anus or upper thighs
  • itching or bleeding from your genitals or anus
  • a change to your normal flow of pee (for example, sideways) that doesn't go away.

Can I get tested for genital warts?

Yes – a healthcare professional can quickly examine you to tell if you have genital warts. To check for hidden 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 (the tube that carries pee from your bladder).

If you have genital warts you should be tested for other STIs.

It’s often a good idea to tell your recent sexual partner/s so they can be checked for any warts, they might not have noticed. By telling them you can help to stop the virus being passed on; and it can also stop you from getting them again.

How are genital warts treated?

There's no cure for the virus that causes genital warts, but there is a chance that your body may be able to clear the virus over time. There is treatment available to remove the warts. The type of treatment you receive will depend on the type of warts you have and where the warts 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.

Check with a healthcare professional before using any treatments. Many wart treatments are designed to be used on hands and feet and should not be used on your genitals.

It may take weeks or months for treatment to work and warts may still come back. Some people might find treatments don’t work. You may also be advised to avoid soaps, creams and lotions while you are having treatment as these can irritate the skin.

Don’t have sex until you or your partner have finished your treatment, and the warts have gone. If you can it’s often a good idea to check back in with a health professional before having sex again.

Having had genital warts once doesn’t stop you from getting them again.

Complications of genital warts

Genital warts generally don’t have many complications and outbreaks can be easily treated. However, as with most STIs, genital warts put you at risk of other STIs, including HIV.

It is also possible for a pregnant woman with genital warts to pass them on to her baby during childbirth. In pregnancy, warts can make urinating (peeing) and giving birth difficult.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/xrender

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Last full review: 
01 July 2018
Next full review: 
01 July 2021
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Last updated:
18 October 2018
Last full review:
01 July 2018
Next full review:
01 July 2021