Genital warts are a visible symptom of a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV.) It's the second most common STI in the UK after chlamydia. There are more than 100 different strains of HPV, around 30 of which affect the genitals. Types 6 and 11 are responsible for most warts. In fact, these two strains account for around 90% of all cases of genital warts.
HPV is usually passed on by vaginal, anal, or oral sex. It's also spread via non-penetrative genital to genital contact and sharing sex toys.
Genital warts appear as small, fleshy growths that are either a pinkish or dark red colour. They're commonly found on or around the genitals or anus, although they can also be present internally. Alternatively, they can show up on the upper thigh area.
Small, single warts can be quite hard to spot at first. In other cases, they manifest in small clusters of three or four, which creates a kind of cauliflower effect on the surface of the skin.
Warts are often symptomless. However, they can be unsightly, leading to feelings of embarrassment and anxiety, especially when it comes to starting a new intimate relationship or explaining them to your current partner.
It's important to remember that warts may lie dormant for months, or sometimes years. Finding a wart could lead to some very challenging conversations between partners, but its appearance is not a sure sign of any recent infidelities.
You may also experience bleeding, itching, irritation, skin discolouration, as well as changes to the flow of your urine.
Most genital warts pose no serious long-term health risks, and there's zero evidence that they affect fertility. But some strains of HPV cause cell changes, which may lead to cervical cancer. There's a vaccination programme that protects against more these dangerous strains. It also reduces the chances of developing less harmful types of genital warts. Speak your GP or a sexual health nurse for more information on the vaccine.
HPV is very infectious. Intimate skin-on-skin contact is enough to transmit the infection, and even condoms won't offer full protection to you or your partner.
The virus is not passed on by hugging, kissing, or sharing everyday objects, such as cutlery, towels, or toilet seats.
Although your GP can diagnose genital warts, they'll probably refer you to an STI clinic, so it's best to contact them directly. Many offer walk-in services, meaning there's a good chance you'll get seen within a few days. All services are completely confidential.
A nurse will take a look at the warts and then ask a few questions about symptoms and your recent sexual history. Depending on where the warts are located, they may need to perform an internal examination.
Let them know if you're pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant, as this may affect what kind of treatment they can recommend
Once diagnosed, your treatment options include:
Creams and lotions are usually enough for softer warts, but hard or rough clusters will likely require freezing or surgery.
It may take months of treatment to get rid of warts. This can be a stressful time for you and your partner, but stay patient and always follow medical advice.
It's best to abstain from any sexual activity until the warts disappear completely. This reduces the chances of passing them on and it may also speed up your recovery time.
You should Never be embarrassed about visiting your GP or a sexual health clinic. Genital warts are usually symptomless and can clear up without treatment. However, there's always a chance they could grow or multiply, leading to further health complications.
There's no cure for HPV. But once the warts are treated, the body can clear the underlying infection within a few months. In some cases, warts reappear months, or sometimes even years later. If this happens to you, go back to your GP or an STI clinic.