This fact sheet gives basic, non-technical information on genital warts. The information in the fact sheets may be especially useful for those teaching about sexual health or preparing projects on sexually transmitted infections. Click on a question below to scroll straight to that topic:
What are genital warts?
- Genital warts (also known as venereal warts) are caused by a virus, the human papillomavirus (HPV).
- Warts are found on or around the penis, anus or vagina.
- Over 100 HPV types have been identified, around 40 of which are sexually acquired and live predominantly in genital tissues.
- Genital warts are the most common viral sexually transmitted infection diagnosed in GUM clinics (also known as Sexually Transmitted Disease clinics) in the UK.
Who gets genital warts?
- Anyone who has sex is at risk of infection. Individuals having unprotected sexual intercourse (i.e. without a condom) are at particular risk, especially those with more than one sexual partner, and those who frequently change sexual partners.
- The highest rates of genital warts are recorded for men aged 20-24 and women aged 16-19, although sexually active people of any age can be infected.
How do you catch genital warts?
- Genital warts are spread through unprotected vaginal, oral, anal sex, or genital contact with an infected partner. They are infectious and approximately two thirds of people who have sexual contact with a partner with genital warts will develop warts, usually within three months of contact.
- An infected person may have no symptoms of infection, but still transmit the virus.
How do you know that you have genital warts?
- Some infected people will show no signs, while others will have visible warts.
- In women warts occur on the inside and outside of the vagina, on the cervix (neck of the womb) or around the anus. In men genital warts may occur on the tip or shaft of the penis, or around the anus.
How serious are genital warts?
How can you protect yourself against genital warts?
- Sexually active men and women reduce their risk of infection by reducing their numbers of partners and by using condoms correctly and consistently during sexual intercourse. Condoms are the only form of contraceptive that offer some protection against sexually transmitted genital warts, but the protection is incomplete.
- The HPV vaccine, Gardasil, used in the national HPV immunisation programme since September 2012 protects against the HPV types which cause the vast majority of genital warts. This vaccine is routinely offered in schools to girls aged 12 to 13 years.
How are genital warts diagnosed?
- Diagnosis is usually made by recognising the warts by their appearance or by looking for other evidence of HPV infection. Genital warts may not be easy to recognise and the person making the diagnosis should be experienced.
- Testing for sexually transmitted infections is often best done in genitourinary medicine clinics (also called STD clinics) that have the equipment and facilities for testing. Details of these clinics can be found in the telephone book, from your local hospital or from the STD clinic index of the Family Planning Association website. The clinics are completely confidential and will not inform GPs unless specifically requested to do so. You can attend one of these clinics at any age (even if you are under 16 years).
- Some GPs, family planning clinics and young people's clinics now also offer treatment for genital warts.
- A person with suspected genital warts should also be tested for other sexually transmitted infections that may appear without symptoms.
How are genital warts treated?
Genital warts are treated according to their size and location. Treatment is based on the application to the wart of caustic agents or freezing with liquid nitrogen.
Antibiotics cannot help as genital warts are caused by a virus.
- There is no immediate cure and treated warts can recur.