What are genital warts and how do I get them?

Warts are abnormal skin growths caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). They are transmitted by touch during sex. Related forms of the virus produce genital warts or warts on the hands. Although rare, it is possible to transfer warts from the hands to the genitals or anus. Certain strains (types) of HPV have also been linked to an increased risk of mouth and anal cancer. These strains of HPV are different to the ones that cause warts. HIV-positive people may be more at risk of these cancers if they are infected with these strains of HPV.

How do I prevent them?

HPV spreads easily so skin contact with warts should be avoided. However, the warts may go unnoticed and so avoiding HPV can be difficult, especially since condoms do not always cover the area where warts may be present. This is perhaps why warts are one of the most common viral STIs diagnosed in the UK.

There is a vaccine available that can guard against certain strains of HPV – in particular the strains of HPV that have been linked to an increased risk of anal cancer. This vaccine is not currently available free for men on the NHS (although lobbying efforts are underway to make it available for all school age children) but you can pay to have it at some private health clinics. The vaccine does not protect against anal or genital warts.

How do I know I've got them?

Genital warts can be found on the inside or outside of the penis and arse. Usually white or pink, they come in a variety of shapes and sizes: smooth and flat, rough and bumpy, small and isolated, and cauliflower-like clusters. They are periodically itchy or painful, particularly if you get them inside the opening of your penis or inside your arse. If this happens, they can cause severe discomfort or bleeding when you have sex, pee, poo, or cum.

It usually takes about three months from the time of infection for genital warts to become visible. However they can appear as soon as two weeks, or up to a year after the virus is contracted. Without treatment the warts multiply and spread.

A sexual health clinic will look for signs of warts as part of a routine sexual health check-up. However, you can have HPV without having warts. 

How do I get them treated?

It can take a long time to get rid of them, and treatments may have to be repeated several times. Treatments include applying creams, freezing them with liquid nitrogen, burning them with acid or lasers, or removal by surgery as a last resort. Untreated warts can spread extensively throughout the genital and anal areas. Warts don't cause any serious health problems themselves, but they can cause irritation and make you more vulnerable to other infections like HIV.

LAST UPDATED: 09/01/2017