Genital warts are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). They are small bumps that appear around the genitals or anus. Genital warts can be treated but there is no cure for HPV so warts may appear again in the future.
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Who is Affected by Genital Warts?
HPV infection is very common, but most people with HPV don’t get genital warts. If you do get genital warts, this doesn’t mean you have a new HPV infection as the virus can stay in your body for weeks, months, or years before causing symptoms.
How is it Transmitted?
HPV is transmitted by skin to skin contact, particularly sexual contact including vaginal and anal sex, and genital contact without penetration. HPV can also be passed on by sharing sex toys, and less commonly, through oral sex.
Condoms, dental dams and fisting and fingering gloves can reduce risk, but if they do not cover the affected area, it is still possible for HPV to be passed on. If you are sharing sex toys you should cover them with a condom and change the condom between partners and holes.
What are the Symptoms?
Genital warts are small growths or bumps which are either flat or smooth or ‘cauliflower-lie’ and lumpy. They are usually not painful, can be very small, and they can be inside the body so you may not notice them. They can be on their own or grouped together.
Genital warts may be found:
- On the vulva or labia (vaginal lips), in the vagina, and on the cervix
- On the penis, scrotum (balls), and urethra (pee tube)
- On the anus or buttocks (bum)
- On upper thighs
Testing and Treatment
There is no blood test to screen for HPV. Most warts are diagnosed after a doctor or nurse looks at them.
The herpes virus stays in your body forever, but if you do have new outbreaks, they can be treated to make them go away more quickly. Your doctor or nurse can tell you what type of treatment is best for your warts. Treatments include:
- Cream or lotion you apply on the warts. Some creams can damage latex condoms, so check with your doctor or nurse. You may need to use non-latex condoms until you’ve stopped treatment.
- Freezing them off (cryotherapy) or heating them (cauterising)
- In some cases, surgery
There is a vaccination which protects against HPV. If you’re a man and have sex with other men and aged up to 45, you may be able to get the vaccination from a sexual health (GUM) clinic.
The vaccination protects against HPV types 6 and 11 which cause genital warts, as well as HPV 16 and 18 which cause some types of cancers.
To read more about HPV and cervical cancers, see our cervical screening page.