Genital warts are one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Genital warts are usually painless and do not pose a serious threat to your health.
They are caused by viruses from the human papilloma virus (HPV) family, and are similar to the warts you can get on other parts of the body.
Genital warts can be spread by skin-to-skin contact such as vaginal or anal sex, and by sharing sex toys. However, you do not need to have penetrative sex to pass the infection on because the virus is spread by skin-to-skin contact.
Genital warts are similar to the warts you can get on other parts of the body such as the hands or feet. They usually occur between two or three months after exposure although they can occur up to a year after you have been infected.
About 10% of people exposed to the virus will develop genital warts, so not everyone who has the virus will have visible warts.
You may notice small, pinkish or white cauliflower-like lumps or warts, appearing singly or in groups around or inside the genital area.
The warts may be itchy but are usually painless, although they will bleed if scratched - so be careful. You might see or feel them yourself, or they may be noticed by your partner or during a medical examination.
In some women, genital warts become larger during pregnancy. Often, within six weeks of the delivery of the baby, the warts will become smaller again and even disappear.
Some treatments are unsuitable during pregnancy and treatment may be delayed until after the child is born. If you are pregnant, or trying to get pregnant, tell the doctor so they can choose a treatment that won’t be harmful to the developing baby.
The risk of passing the virus to your baby either during pregnancy or delivery is very small.
The test for genital warts involves a simple examination of the genital area. There is no ‘swab’, urine or blood test currently available to look for the virus that causes the warts.
You can be checked for genital warts at any time after you have been in contact with the virus. A doctor or nurse can usually tell whether you have genital warts simply by examining the genital area. If none are visible, you may be asked to come back at a later date for another examination.
If everything in your genital area looks and feels normal to you, then it is unlikely that you have genital warts. However, you could still carry the virus that causes them so if you develop symptoms then you should go back to your doctor or the sexual health service you attended.
If you or your partner is worried that you may have genital warts, see your GP or a sexual health service.
There are several effective treatments for genital warts, although extra caution is required if you are pregnant.
If you have genital warts you will usually be prescribed an anti-wart liquid or cream which can be used at home. But you should always consult a doctor or nurse. Do not use wart-removal preparations that you can buy from the pharmacy, as these will not work on genital warts.
Other treatments,which usually take place at sexual health clinics,include freezing, cutting or using lasers. These are carried out by a doctor or nurse. They may be uncomfortable, and may need to be repeated over several weeks to ensure the complete removal of the warts.
Treatment often lasts between four and twelve weeks. It’s important to remember that most treatments get rid of the warts themselves, but not the virus. So although the virus is usually cleared from the body by the immune system within 1-2 years after infection, warts can recur until your body has cleared the virus.
If left untreated, genital warts may disappear on their own but this can take some time. However, they may also stay the same size, or grow larger in size and number. They will also remain infectious.
Some treatments are unsuitable during pregnancy and treatment may be delayed until after the child is born. So if you're pregnant, or trying to get pregnant, tell the doctor so they can choose a treatment that won't be harmful to the developing baby. The risk of passing the virus to your baby either during pregnancy or delivery is very small.
Always use a condom to protect against genital warts – the virus that causes them can’t pass through a condom.
However, if there are warts present around the genitals in an area not protected by the condom (as is often the case) infection may still occur. The virus can also be present on the skin around the genitals even if there are no warts visible. This is the reason why condoms are not 100% protective against genital warts.
If there are visible warts not covered by a condom, it is best to avoid sex until the warts have cleared up.
The best way to prevent all sexually transmitted infections including genital warts, as well as to protect against HIV, is to practise safer sex. This means using a condom for vaginal or anal sex, a dam or condom for oral sex or practicing safer sex alternatives.
Some strains (types) of HPV virus can lead to cervical cancer, these are different to the ones that cause genital warts and having genital warts doesn’t mean that you have cervical cancer.
Girls aged 12-13 are offered vaccination against the two types of HPV that can cause 70% of cervical cancer cases.
The vaccine that is now used in Scotland (Gardasil) also offers protection against the types of HPV that cause about 90% of the cases of genital warts.
People who were vaccinated with Cervarix (the vaccine used before August 2012) are protected against cervical cancer, but not genital warts