Genital warts

Genital warts are the second most common sexually transmitted infection in the UK among 16–25 year olds. The good news is they’re harmless, but it can still be upsetting to discover embarrassing pimples on your sexy bits. Find out more about the symptoms and treatment of genital warts.

diagram of genital warts

If only the actual warts looked like this...

What are genital warts?

Genital warts are caused by a group of viruses called Human Papillomavirus (HPV). They’re usually tiny red or brown lumps about the size of a pinhead. Occasionally they can appear on the upper thighs, but mostly they’ll be found around the penis, vagina or anus. You’ll be able to feel them rather than see them because they’re so small. They won’t squeeze like a zit or pick off – they’ll stubbornly stay around for ages, just like the warts you get on your fingers.

They generally don’t itch or hurt. Once established they can enlarge and spread, so it’s worth getting early treatment.

HPV – doesn’t that cause cancer?

HPV is the name for a collection of different viruses, but the one that causes genital warts isn’t the same as the one that causes cervical cancer. However, women with genital warts may be asked to have regular smear tests just to be on the safe side.

How do I know I’ve got the genital warts virus?

Many people carry it without getting any symptoms. That’s why it’s so easy to pass on.

Can I get tested for genital warts? Can my partner get tested?

Unfortunately not – until you get the actual warts there’s no test to find out if you’re carrying the virus.

How are genital warts treated?

You need to see your doctor, who’ll take a look to check they’re actually genital warts. Doctors are used to hunting out these tiny little lumps, so there’s no need to feel embarrassed.

If caught early, genital warts are easily treatable. You’ll be given cream that you rub onto the warts until they disappear. During the treatment you’ll be advised not to have sex, as you’ll be more infectious when you have warts.

If the warts are particularly stubborn or tough to remove you might be offered the option to have them frozen off.

But don’t attempt any form of over-the-counter wart removal treatment at home. Not only will it bring tears to your eyes, it won’t actually get rid of them.

Treating them not only stops them in their tracks, it reduces the risk of you passing on the virus to anyone else.

How can I avoid getting genital warts?

You can be vaccinated against genital warts, but only if you’re not infected with HPV. The vaccinations (Cervarix(R) and Gardasil(R)) are therefore mostly given to people before they become sexually active.

You can get genital warts from skin-to-skin contact during vaginal or anal sex with an infected partner. Condoms don’t cover the whole genital area, so even if you use them the HPV virus can still wriggle round the edge. But condoms protect against other types of STI, so they’re still essential for safe sex.

You can also get them from oral sex, but this is rare – as is passing them from a mother to her baby during childbirth.

Great. I’m never having sex again.

The best way to protect yourself from genital warts (in fact any type of STI) is to limit the number of sexual partners you have and try to ask them about their sexual history – the more partners they’ve had, the higher the risk of catching the virus.

My partner has genital warts – have they been sleeping around?

The symptoms can develop up to a year after the virus was caught, so it’s possible they were infected a while ago, have been faithful to you, but only just developed symptoms.

What if I ignore them?

Ignoring them could result in them getting bigger and becoming more difficult to treat. It may also affect your sexual confidence if you know you have genital warts, even if they’re so small your partner can’t see them. So best to get them sorted.

How soon can I have sex again?

To speed things up, keep the area clean and dry and avoid using perfumed soaps, shower gels and deodorising products that can irritate the warts. In most cases, genital warts clear up after three months.

I thought I got rid of them, but they’ve come back!

For some people the warts can clear up quite quickly, for others it can take a long time and treatment often has to be repeated or even changed. Also – and here’s the bad news – although treatments can remove the warts, they do not remove the HPV, so warts can recur (about 50-73% of the time). They’ll spontaneously go away when your body finally kicks out the virus.

Diagram of HPV virus by Shutterstock

Next Steps

  • Are you Getting Some? Get Tested! Search for a sexual health clinic near you
  • Brook provides free sexual health and wellbeing services for young people in the UK. Brook's services include local clinics and online digital sex and relationships tool.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.



By Nicola Scott

Updated on 29-Sep-2015