What you need to know
Genital warts are caused by a common skin virus called HPV (short for human papilloma virus). Many people will carry the virus and never develop warts. If you do develop visible warts there is treatment available to make them go away but it is up to your body’s immune system to clear the virus up, which can take months to years in some people.
Warts can appear for the first time during pregnancy because of the immune system changes that happen when someone is pregnant. Genital warts can be treated with cryotherapy (freezing) during pregnancy. However, having genital warts rarely affects the baby during birth. If you are pregnant, you can be reassured that there is little risk to the baby, but you should tell your doctor or nurse if you have genital warts.
If they are not treated effectively, some HPV types can cause cancer. Cancers of the cervix (neck of the womb), vulva, vagina, anus, penis and throat have been linked to HPV types 16 and 18. However, these are not the common, visible types of HPV. It is important for all women who are aged 25 to 64 years to make sure that their cervical screening is up to date by checking with their GP.
There is now an effective vaccine which protects against the commonly circulating types of the virus. Girls and boys aged 12 to 13 years (born after 1 September 2006) are offered the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine as part of the NHS vaccination programme.
It also helps protect against genital warts.
A catch up vaccine programme exists for certain groups, most notably for men who have sex with men. Vaccines for these groups can be accessed through sexual health clinics.
Signs and symptoms
Most people with HPV infection will not develop visible warts and the virus will go away on its own. This means you may not know whether you or your partner have the virus.
If warts do appear, this can happen from three weeks to many, or even years, after coming into contact with the virus. You might notice small, fleshy growths, bumps or skin changes which may appear anywhere in or on the genital or anal area.
- In women, warts can be found on the vulva (the lips around the opening to the vagina), cervix (entrance to the uterus – womb), upper thighs, in the vagina and on, or inside, the anus.
- In men, warts can be found on the penis, scrotum, urethra (tube where urine comes out), the upper thighs and on, or inside, the anus.
- You might see or feel them, or your partner might notice them. Often they are so tiny, or so difficult to see, that you don’t even know you have them.
- They can be flat or smooth small bumps or quite large, cauliflower-like lumps.
- Warts can appear on their own or in groups.
- Genital warts are usually painless but may occasionally itch and cause some inflammation.
- They may cause bleeding from the anus or the urethra.
- If your flow of urine is distorted this may be a sign of warts in the urethra.
Testing and treatment
There is no routine test available for the HPV virus. The diagnosis of genital warts is made in the sexual health clinic by a doctor or nurse looking at your skin.