In England genital warts are the second most common sexually transmitted infection (STI), with chlamydia being the first*. Both men and women can be affected by genital warts, as they are contagious. If you think that you have genital warts then should refrain from any sexual contact until you are properly treated and cleared of the infection.
It is rare for genital warts to cause any long term health damage or affect your fertility; they can however affect your self-esteem and cause distress, as they are unpleasant to look at.
What causes genital warts?
The human papilloma virus (HPV) is a viral skin infection that causes genital warts. There are many different strains of the HPV virus which affect different parts of the body. For example a wart on the foot called a verruca is a part of the HPV virus family. The two stains of the virus that cause these types of warts are type 6 and type 11.
What are the symptoms?
Most people with HPV will not develop visible warts and the virus can also go away on its own. Therefore you will not know whether you or your partner have the virus, and preventative measures such as refraining from sexual contact may not be undertaken.
If you do have visible warts these can appear weeks, months or years after you have first been in contract with the virus. You may notice small, fleshy growths, bumps or skin changes around your upper thighs, genital or anal area. These bumps tend to be very small and hard to spot, so much so that you may not notice them at all.
Symptoms can include:
- Bumps are skin coloured or a white colour
- Warts are very small and hard to see
- They may be itchy but usually not painful
- They can appear as a single wart or as cluster of warts which grow together and resemble a ‘cauliflower’
Women will find them around:
- Their upper thighs
- The vulva (the opening of the vagina)
- Inside the vagina
- Around the cervix (the neck of the womb)
- Inside or around the anus
Men will find them:
- Anywhere on the penis
- On the scrotum
- Inside the urethra (the tube where urine comes out)
- Inside or around the anus
- On the upper thighs
Genital warts are usually painless; however they can become itchy and inflamed which can lead to bleeding from the vagina, anus or urethra.
How do you catch genital warts?
Genital warts are passed through skin to skin contact, meaning that you do not have to have penetrative sex to contract the virus. You also do not need to have symptoms of genital warts to pass them onto your partner.
- Through vaginal or anal sex with someone who has the infection
- Sharing sex toys
- Your genitals touching someone else’s genitals even if there is not penetration, orgasm or ejaculation
- Through oral sex although this is very rare
- In very rare cases pregnant women can also pass the infection to their baby during childbirth and someone with HPV warts on their hands can give the infection to somebody’s genital area.
A male or female condom can help to protect you against the virus, however as these do not cover all genital skin areas, so it is still possible to pass on HPV to any uncovered areas of skin. Condoms are the safest option, apart from refraining from sex and sexual contact, if you have oral sex cover the penis with a condom or a dental dam can be used to cover the anal area or female genitals. Also avoid sharing sex toys, if you do so remember to wash them thoroughly or use a new condom with each use.
It is important that you are regularly checked for this STI, as you can have virus months or years without showing any symptoms.
You can’t contract genital warts through:
- Kissing or hugging
- Sharing baths or towels
- Swimming in your local leisure centre pool
- Toilet seats
Some people may only have genital warts once, however for others the warts can recur again, perhaps weeks or years later. If new warts develop it is hard to discern whether these are the result of the original infection or a new HPV infection.
Diagnosis and treatment
The best way to determine whether you have genital warts is to visit your GP or a sexual health clinic. Here a medical professional will examine the infected area; they may use a magnifying glass to make sure that the symptoms you are experiencing are in fact genital warts. If you would prefer not to visit a doctor or nurse in person then Online Doctor have a GP photo upload service, so that you can get the diagnosis you need in the comfort of your own home.
Treatments for genital warts vary depending on the size, volume and texture of the warts themselves. These can include applying a cream to the warts or freezing the tissue of the warts. Visit our genital warts treatment page for more information. It is advisable that you avoid any sexual contact while you are having treatment for genital warts and they have fully healed, as this will help you to recover quicker as well as not pass the infection to others. Warts can clear up on their own, however if left they can also multiple and grown in size.
How soon after sex can I get checked for genital warts?
You can be checked at your local sexual health clinic as soon as you think you might have come into contact with genital warts. However it can take three weeks to 18 months for any visible warts to appear.
Will genital warts come back?
Some people only experience one episode of genital warts, however many others have warts that will come back weeks, months or years later.
Will genital warts affect my fertility?
No, unlike other sexually transmitted infections there is no evidence to suggest that your fertility will be affected by having genital warts.