Genital warts are a very common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the UK, caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Genital warts usually don’t cause any pain or threat to your health, but genital warts symptoms can look unpleasant, which can cause emotional distress for some sufferers.
Although it can seem distressing and embarrassing if you think you may have contracted genital warts, the best thing you can do is visit your doctor or a sexual health clinic and get an official diagnosis and treatment. Learning the symptoms and signs of genital warts will help you to recognise when your body isn’t feeling or looking right and you need a sexual health check-up.
This in-depth guide to genital warts, their causes signs and symptoms should answer all your questions.
- What are genital warts?
- What do genital warts look like?
- What are the early signs of genital warts?
- Genital warts symptoms
- How to get rid of genital warts
- How long do genital warts last?
- Can you cure genital warts forever?
- How do you get genital warts?
- Can you get genital warts without having sex?
- Do genital warts hurt?
- Can you get internal genital warts?
- Do genital warts go away on their own?
- Can genital warts cause cancer?
- Skin tag vs genital warts: how to tell the difference
- Genital warts or ingrown hair: how to tell the difference
Genital warts are a very common sexually transmitted infection (STI) that can affect both men and women.
They are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), with most caused by strains H6 and H11 of the virus. It takes up to three months for the HPV to develop into genital warts and there are a number of common symptoms that make genital warts easy to spot at home yourself.
The HPV virus is passed on through sexual skin-to-skin contact and is very easy to contract. In fact, most people get HPV during their lives. Only certain strains or cases will develop into genital warts. Some strains of HPV are completely harmless and go away by themselves.
Genital warts usually resemble small, fleshy bumps or growths on the skin in the genital or anal area. They can be skin-coloured or slightly darker, whitish or even grey.
Warts can be flat and smooth, raised and bumpy, or sometimes look like a small cauliflower.
You can just have one wart that appears on its own, but they may also appear in clusters. Genital warts can also range in size; in many cases, they might be so small that you won’t even notice them.
People often find out they have genital warts by spotting small fleshy lumps around their pubic area. Both men and women develop these small bumps, which tend to be 1-3 mm in size.
You may need a mirror to see them properly — the smaller ones can be tricky to spot, especially amongst pubic hair.
You might also feel itching or discomfort in your genital area.
If you spot any of these signs it could be an indication that you have genital warts, so it’s a good idea to get checked out.
Genital warts symptoms
If you are sexually active or you are concerned that you might have genital warts, it’s a good idea to regularly check yourself and keep an eye out for the symptoms of genital warts like:
- Small fleshy bumps on the skin
- Changes to your skin’s texture or colour
- Itchiness, irritation, or discomfort in the genital or anal area
- In rarer cases, bleeding
- A distorted flow of urine (which could indicate a wart in the urethra)
If genital warts do develop it can be several weeks, months or even years after initially coming into contact with the human papillomavirus.
This means that, like the majority of people with HPV, you might not see any visible warts or symptoms. The virus could even go away on its own without you even realising you had it.
Genital warts symptoms are similar in men and women but the location of warts can vary.
In men, genital warts are usually found:
- On the penis
- On the scrotum
- Around and inside the anus
- On the upper thighs
- Inside the urethra
For women, genital warts will usually appear:
- Around the opening of the vagina (the vulva)
- In the neck of the womb (the cervix)
- Around and inside the anus
- On the upper thighs
If you notice the symptoms of genital warts in these areas, you should visit a doctor or nurse for a check-up to confirm you have the infection. They will be able to suggest a course of action.
If you want to get rid of genital warts, there are both medical and surgical treatments for the condition and various different options within each.
There is a chance that genital warts will go away in time without treatment — and some people choose not to have any. However, your warts are much more likely to go (and faster) if you use one of the following treatments.
There are four procedures for physically and surgically treating your genital warts:
- Cryotherapy – This treats your genital warts by freezing them with liquid nitrogen and then removing them from your body. Cryotherapy is performed during weekly sessions by a doctor or nurse over a period of about a month.
- Excision – A local anaesthetic is applied to your genital warts before they are surgically cut away.
- Electrosurgery – This is used in combination with excision for the treatment of larger genital warts. Excision is used to cut the bulk of your wart away before a metal loop is pressed to the remainder of the wart. An electrical current is then passed through the wart to burn it off.
- Laser surgery – Used for large genital warts that are difficult to access, a laser is used to burn away warts.
There are a number of creams and solutions available for you to treat your genital warts:
- Condyline 0.5% Solution – A clear solution that contains the active ingredient podophyllotoxin, you apply this cream directly onto your genital warts. It then works by targeting your genital warts’ ability to multiply, stopping them from growing.
- Warticon Solution – Using the active ingredient podophyllotoxin, this solution treats your genital warts by attacking and erasing the HPV responsible for causing them.
- Warticon Cream – This cream also has podophyllotoxin as its active ingredient. It fights the HPV responsible for causing your genital warts and eventually causes them to die, with healthy skin tissue replacing the dead cells.
- Aldara (Imiquimod) 5% Cream – This cream is licensed explicitly for the treatment of external anal warts and genital warts. It works as an immune response modifier (IRM), helping the body to build up and implement its own defence systems.
Here’s more in-depth information about the different genital warts treatments available. And you can buy Warticon and Aldara from The Independent Pharmacy after completing a short online questionnaire.
With a topical cream or solution treatment, most genital warts will go away in four to twelve weeks (depending on the type of medication that you use).
Surgical treatments will remove genital warts immediately, and freezing usually requires multiple sessions over a number of weeks.
Without treatment, most people find that warts go away within six months. However, they can last for longer.
The HPV virus, the underlying cause of genital warts, is not currently curable. But genital warts themselves can be treated and should go away by using a topical treatment.
There are some cases where they will remain and may require physically or surgically treating to remove them completely.
Unfortunately, as there is no actual cure for HPV it will remain dormant in your system after your warts have disappeared, meaning you could suffer recurring outbreaks of genital warts. It is possible though that, over time, your body could clear the virus from your system and you will not have any further outbreaks of warts.
Most people who contract genital warts get it from vaginal or anal sex with somebody who has a type of HPV that causes genital warts (usually HPV types 6 and 11).
It’s also possible to get it from oral sex, but this is less common.
Genital warts are spread by skin-to-skin contact. This means you can get genital warts even if you always use a condom during sex because the virus can be present in the skin that is not covered by the condom.
You can get genital warts without having penetrative sex. As well as oral sex, genital warts can be passed on by sharing sex toys and by fingers during foreplay.
It’s also possible for a mother to pass genital warts to her baby during childbirth, but this is very rare. For more information on risks during pregnancy and childbirth, you can visit our guide on genital warts and pregnancy.
You can’t get genital warts from kissing, or from sharing cups, cutlery, or towels.
You can’t get genital warts from toilet seats, either.
No — most genital warts are painless.
Some people can experience itching, irritation or discomfort in the affected area, particularly if warts have developed around the anus.
In some cases, there may be bleeding from the affected area, but this is quite rare.
Genital warts are one of the most common types of sexually transmitted infections. In fact, genital warts are the second most common STI in the UK after chlamydia — and the most common viral STI.
Nearly all sexually active people will become infected with at least one type of HPV at some point during their lives.
Yes, men and women can both develop warts inside the urethra and the anus. Women can also develop genital warts inside the vagina and cervix.
It’s also possible to develop warts inside your mouth, on your tongue and throat, but this is rarer.
If you think you have internal genital warts, see a health professional who will be able to diagnose them and advise you on how these can be treated (or whether they need to be treated at all).
Some people may only ever get one episode of genital warts. However, for many others, genital warts will come back.
Treatments for genital warts can remove the warts themselves, but not the virus that causes them. This means that while HPV is in your system, it’s possible you’ll develop genital warts again.
There’s no cure for HPV, although your body may remove the virus by itself in time — if this were to happen, you would no longer be at risk of getting genital warts.
Some people don't need treatment or choose not to have any.
If untreated, genital warts could go away on their own; however, they could also stay the same, get bigger, get smaller, or multiply.
Genital warts usually go away without treatment within six months for around a third of affected people. However, for many other people, genital warts may hang around for longer.
Treatment can get rid of warts faster, make it less likely you’ll pass them on, and help prevent further health complications.
Genital warts are not cancer and do not cause cancer.
Both genital warts and cervical cancer stem from the same virus: the human papillomavirus (HPV). However, there are over 100 different strains of HPV, with varying levels of severity and results.
Genital warts are usually caused by HPV types 6 and 11. In fact, these two strains are responsible for 90% of genital warts. These types do not cause cancer of the cervix, vagina, anus, or penis.
The types of HPV that are linked to these cancers do not cause genital warts (HPV types 16 and 18 are the ones linked to more than 70% of cases of cervical cancer in the UK).
Skin tags are small, harmless growths that usually occur in places where your skin folds — such as the groin and buttocks. This means they’re often mistaken for genital warts.
The main differences between skin tags and genital warts are:
- Genital warts are usually rough to the touch but skin tags are usually smooth
- Genital warts are usually flat or only slightly raised but skin tags hang from the skin
- Genital warts can appear in clusters but a skin tag usually appears in isolation
If you are unsure about whether you have a skin tag or genital warts, it’s worth getting checked out by a medical professional.
If you shave your pubic area, you increase the risk of getting ingrown hairs — hairs that have curled around and grown back into the skin.
Ingrown hairs are usually red, raised, and painful — similar to a spot or a pimple. Sometimes they can be itchy too, which is why people might mistake them for genital warts.
However, genital warts look very different to an ingrown hair. Genital warts are flesh-coloured and normally have a 'cauliflower-like' appearance.
Genital warts may be one of the most common STIs in the UK, but it is also one of the STIs with the broadest range and most accessible treatments.
We recommend speaking to your GP or a registered pharmacist to decide which of the common treatment options, covered in this article, is best for you.