Genital warts are small, raised, usually painless growths. It is an STI caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) which can be passed on through sex without a condom. There are over 100 different strains of HPV. The strain of HPV that causes genital warts is different from the strain that causes genital cancers, such as cervical cancer. The HPV that causes warts isn’t linked to cancer and doesn’t cause any more serious health problems. Warts themselves can be treated and will clear.
HPV is the most common of all STIs. Men and women who are sexually active are vulnerable to complications of HPV, including genital warts. HPV infection is especially dangerous for women because some types of HPV can also cause cancer of the cervix and vulva. Treatment is key in managing this infection.
Facts about genital warts
- Most cases of genital warts are caused by HPV. There are 30 to 40 strains of HPV that specifically affect the genitals, but just a few of these strains cause genital warts.
- The HPV virus is highly transmittable through skin-to-skin contact, which is why it’s considered an STI.
- In fact, HPV is so common that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that most sexually active people get it at some point.
- However, the virus doesn’t always lead to complications such as genital warts. In fact, in most cases, the virus goes away on its own without causing any health problems.
- Genital warts are usually caused by strains of HPV that differ from the strains that cause warts on your hands or other parts of the body. A wart can’t spread from someone’s hand to the genitals, and vice versa.
- You are more at risk of getting genital warts if you
- are under the age of 30
- have a weakened immune system
- have a history of child abuse
- are children of a mother who had the virus during childbirth
- HPV infection is the main cause of cancer in the cervix. It can also lead to precancerous changes to the cells of the cervix, which is called dysplasia. Other types of HPV may also cause cancer of the vulva, which are the external genital organs of women. They can also cause penile and anal cancer.
- If you have genital warts you should also test for HIV and other STIs. Having an STI, including genital warts, can increase your risk of getting HIV. This is because having an STI makes it easier for HIV to get into your body and cause an infection.
- People living with HIV can also be more likely to get genital warts or have more severe cases of genital warts. This is especially the case for people who aren’t on treatment or who have a lower CD4 count. You’re more vulnerable to infections, like genital warts, if your immune system is weaker.
- Genital warts can be passed on through vaginal or anal sex without a condom and by sharing sex toys. The virus is transmitted through close genital contact, which means that you can get and pass on warts if you touch your genitals with someone, even if you don’t have penetrative sex or ejaculate (cum).
- Although it’s rare, genital warts can also be passed on through oral sex and affect the mouth and throat.
- You can only get genital warts from someone else who has the virus, but be aware that not everyone will know if they have it. If the warts are internal someone may not notice them and people can pass on the virus even if they don’t have any symptoms.
- You can’t get genital warts from kissing, hugging, swimming pools, sharing towels or cutlery.
What are the symptoms of genital warts?
Genital warts can appear as a single wart or as multiple warts in a cluster.
- one or more small, flesh-coloured or grey painless growths or lumps around your vagina, penis, anus or upper thighs
- itching or bleeding from your genitals or anus
- a change to your normal flow of pee (for example, sideways), that doesn’t go away.
Be aware that the warts may be difficult to notice if they are internal (inside the vagina or anus) and that many people with the strain of HPV that causes genital warts will not develop any symptoms or know that they have it.
Symptoms of genital warts can appear weeks, months or years after you were in contact with the virus that causes them.
If you have symptoms of genital warts it’s important to visit a health clinic to have them checked.
How do you prevent genital warts?
If you have symptoms that could be genital warts you should go to a health clinic to have these checked. If you have genital warts, you may be advised to avoid sex while they’re being treated. If you do have sex, make sure that the warts are covered with a condom. This area of skin should be covered with a condom even after warts have gone. You can still pass the virus on for up to three months after warts have disappeared. Avoid rubbing or touching your warts, in case you spread the infection to the surrounding area. If you find out that you have genital warts your partner should also get checked.
Talking about your sexual health with your partners, and letting each other know about any symptoms or infections, will help you decide how to have safer sex together.
Reducing your number of sexual partners can also help you reduce your risk of getting sexually transmitted infections, like genital warts. If you are having sex with multiple partners, it’s even more important to use condoms and to have regular STI tests.
Speak to your healthcare provider if you are living with HIV and taking treatment for genital warts, to make sure that the medication won’t affect your antiretroviral treatment (ART).