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Genital warts

What are genital warts?

Genital warts are a common sexually transmitted infection. The warts often appear on the skin around the bottom (anus) and genital area. Some types of human papillomavirus (HPV) cause genital warts.

The types of HPV that cause genital warts do not cause cervical abnormalities or cervical cancer. If you have genital warts, it does not mean you are more likely to get cervical cancer. Two types of HPV cause nine out of 10 cases (90%) of genital warts:

  • HPV 6.
  • HPV 11.

Different types of HPV cause cervical cancer. The two main types that can cause it are 16 and 18, which are called high-risk HPV. Depending on your age, you can have a vaccination that protects against high-risk HPV and the type of HPV that causes genital warts through the NHS or privately.  

Most people will clear the infection without treatment. They may never know that they had it. However, some people will not be able to clear the infection and may develop genital warts.

How are genital warts passed on?

HPV can be passed on through any kind of skin-to-skin contact in the genital area. This includes:

  • oral, vaginal or anal sex
  • sharing sex toys.

Using condoms can help reduce the risk of HPV being passed on. However, condoms don’t cover all of the genital area, so exposed skin could still be infected.

It is easy to pass on HPV. Eight out of 10 people (80%) will have some type of HPV during their lifetime. If you develop genital warts, it is not necessarily from a current partner. You may have got the infection many years earlier.  

Symptoms of genital warts

Genital warts can look different depending on how many there are or how advanced they are. They usually look like fleshy bumps on the skin around the genitals or anus. They can be small, single warts, which may look like a change or different colour on the skin. Or they sometimes appear in small clusters of several warts, which have a cauliflower-like appearance.

Both women and men can be affected by genital warts. In women, they can affect the skin of the:

  • upper thighs or skin around the genital area
  • vulva, which is the external genital area that includes the labia and the clitoris
  • vagina
  • cervix 
  • anus, around the opening and inside.

In men, genital warts can affect the skin of the:

  • upper thighs or skin around the genital area
  • penis, outside and inside the urethra, which is where urine comes out
  • scrotum, which is the skin covering testicles
  • anus, around the opening and inside.

Genital warts should not cause any pain or serious problems. But they can be unpleasant and may upset or worry people. If the warts affect the skin around the penis, vagina or anus, they sometimes cause bleeding in that area.

If you think that you have genital warts, it is important to visit your GP, local sexual health clinic or GUM clinic. They will be able to diagnose and treat the infection. For information on how to access sexual health services near you, visit:

Treating genital warts

Genital warts are usually treated in two different ways:

Creams and liquids

Sometimes a cream or liquid is applied directly to the warts to help get rid of it. This is also called topical treatment.

There are several types of topical treatments. These attack the cells of the warts, or encourage the body’s immune system to recognise and attack the warts. Topical treatments are usually given for softer warts.

Removing the warts

Warts can be destroyed or removed by:

  • freezing them (cryotherapy)
  • removing them with surgery (physical ablation).

Sometimes both types of treatment are used one after the other. People may need several rounds of treatment to get rid of genital warts completely.

For more information about treatments for genital warts, visit NHS Choices or the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH).

If you are pregnant

If you are pregnant and have a history of genital warts, it is important to let your midwife know. During pregnancy, warts may get bigger or there may be more of them. Any warts are usually treated with cryotherapy.

There is a small risk of passing on the infection during a vaginal birth, but this is rare. If the infection is passed on, the warts usually appear in the child’s mouth. They are treated with cream or by removing them. Your doctor or midwife can give you more information.

Very rarely, large genital warts may appear on the cervix or block the birth canal. If this happens, the doctor may suggest a C-section (Caesarean delivery) but this is rare.

More information about genital warts

If you are worried about genital warts, talk to your GP or healthcare professional. They will be able to give you more information and advice.

Date last updated: 
28 Sep 2017
Date due for review: 
28 Sep 2020

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