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HPV and 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)
  • external genitals (vulva, including the labia and clitoris)
  • internal genitals (including the vagina and cervix).

They may also appear on the upper thighs and skin around the genital area.

We do not have information about warts on other parts of the body. You may find the NHS information on warts and verrucas helpful. 

What causes genital warts?

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 have or are more likely to get cervical cancer.

Two types of HPV cause 9 out of 10 cases (90%) of genital warts:

  • HPV 6.
  • HPV 11.

Depending on your age, you can have a vaccine that protects against the HPV types that cause genital warts, as well as other types of HPV, through the NHS or privately.  

Our immune system usually gets rid of HPV by itself. We may never know we had it! But some people will not be able to get rid of 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
  • touching in the genital area
  • sharing sex toys.

Using condoms or dental dams can help reduce the risk of HPV being passed on, but will not completely protect you against it. Remember, HPV lives on the skin in the whole genital area, not just the part you are covering! 

It is really easy to pass on HPV. 4 out of 5 of us (80%) will have some type of HPV during our lives. 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.

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.

Both women and men can be affected by genital warts.

Genital warts in women

Genital warts 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.

Genital warts 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.

What should I do if I have genital warts?

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 warts. 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 our 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. Or you can call our Helpline on 0808 802 8000 to speak with one of our trained volunteers.

Show references
  1. BASHH, 2015. UK National Guidelines on the Management of Anogenital Warts 2015.
  2. The Family Planning Association (FPA), 2014. Genital warts, www.fpa.org.uk/sexually-transmitted-infections-stis-help/genital-warts> [Last accessed: May 2017]
  3. NHS Choices, 2014. Genital warts – Treatment, www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Genital_warts/Pages/Treatment.aspx> [Last accessed: May 2017]

 

 

Date last updated: 
01 Aug 2018
Date due for review: 
28 Sep 2020

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