Genital warts and HPV (human papillomavirus)
Genital warts are a common sexually transmitted infection caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV.
Genital warts look like small fleshy bumps or growths around the genital or anal area in men and women. They may not appear until up to a year after being infected.
Although genital warts are painless and not a threat to health, they can be a cause for concern and can be passed to sex partners.
HPV vaccinations are offered to girls at secondary school to help protect again genital warts.
What do genital warts look like?
Genital warts look like small flesh-coloured, pink, or red growths in or around the sex organs. The warts may look similar to the small parts of a cauliflower or they may be very tiny and difficult to see. They often appear in clusters of three or four, and may grow and spread rapidly. They usually are not painful, although they may cause mild pain, bleeding, and itching.
How do I know if I have genital warts?
Like many STIs, HPV does not always have visible symptoms. However, when symptoms do occur, warts may be seen around the genital area. In women, warts can develop on the outside and inside of the vagina, on the cervix (the opening to the uterus), or around the anus. In men, they may be seen on the tip of the penis, the shaft of the penis, on the scrotum, or around the anus. Warts also can develop in the mouth or throat of a person who has had oral sex with an infected person.
Because there is no way to predict whether the warts will grow or disappear, people who suspect that they have been infected should be examined and treated, if necessary.
What tests are used to detect genital warts?
Your doctor may perform the following tests to check for genital warts:
- An examination of the genital and anal area
- An examination of visible growths to see if they look like genital warts
- A vaginal examination using a speculum
Tests for gonorrhoea, Chlamydia, syphilis and HIV are also often taken because STIs often occur together and share similar symptoms. Sometimes female patients are referred to a gynaecologist (a doctor who specialises in female reproductive health) for further testing and biopsy.
How are genital warts treated?
Unfortunately, no treatment can kill the virus that causes the warts. Your doctor can remove the warts by freezing or applying chemicals. Some prescription treatments are available for at home use. Surgery or laser therapy may be necessary for warts that are large or difficult to treat. Still, recurrence remains a problem. You may need to return to your doctor for more treatment.
How can I prevent getting infected with genital warts?
Your best chance of preventing infection is to abstain from sex or limit sexual contact to one uninfected person. If that is not an option, condoms may provide some protection, but condoms are not 100% effective since they do not cover the entire penis or surrounding areas.
The NHS offers HPV vaccination to girls aged 12 to 13 against HPV, usually in year eight at school.