Genital warts are small fleshy growths, bumps or skin changes that appear on or around the genital or anal area. They are the result of infection with the most common viral STI and are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV).
Around 90% of all cases of genital warts are caused by two strains of the virus – type 6 and type 11.
The types of HPV that cause visible genital warts do not cause genital cancer.
The number of cases of first episodes of genital warts diagnosed in Wales is fairly consistent at approximately 6,000 per year.
Both men and women can be affected by genital warts. Genital warts and chlamydia are most common in sexually active teenagers and young adults.
Genital warts usually appear within two to three months of developing an HPV infection, but gaps of up to a year between HPV infection and the appearance of warts have been reported. There is no blood test to check for an active HPV infection.
In women, genital warts usually begin as small, gritty-feeling lumps that become larger. In men, the warts look similar to warts that sometimes develop on a person’s hands (firm and raised, with a rough surface).
A person can have a single wart, or clusters of multiple warts that grow together to form a kind of ‘cauliflower’ appearance.
Warts are usually painless, although some people may experience symptoms of itchiness and irritation, particularly if warts develop around the anus (back passage).
Some people experience bleeding from the warts during sex. However, it is recommended you avoid having sex until your genital warts are fully healed.
Genital warts can be spread during vaginal or anal sex, and by sharing sex toys. But you don't need to have penetrative sex to pass the infection on because HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact.
Always use a condom. You can get free condoms from the sexual health clinic. Condoms are the best way to protect yourself and others from warts and other STIs, including HIV. If you haven’t liked using condoms in the past try different ones, there are many different varieties now designed to increase pleasure and sensation.
Be aware that although using condoms can help protect against the virus that causes genital warts they do not provide complete protection because it is possible for the skin around your genital area not covered by the condom to become infected.
Avoid sharing sex toys. However, if you do share them, wash them or cover them with a new condom before anyone else uses them.
A vaccine, HPV vaccine is also available for specific groups.
You should go and get advice from your GP or at your local sexual health clinic.
Treatment for genital warts depends on the type of warts you have and where they are located. You do not need treatment if there are no visible warts.
There are two main types of treatment for genital warts:
Most topical treatments tend to work better on softer warts, and physical ablation tends to work better on harder and rougher-feeling warts. Sometimes, a combination of topical treatments is recommended.
For some people, treatment can take several months to remove the warts, so it is important to persevere.
NHS Direct Wales has extensive information about genital warts on its website. You can also seek advice from your GP or at your local sexual health clinic.
Young gay men have been found to have particularly high rates of anal HPV in some research. Having HPV has also been linked to a higher risk of becoming infected with HIV in some research.