Genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). There are many different strains, some of which can be vaccinated against. Warts are usually not painful and are not a serious threat to your health.
What are genital warts?
According to NHS Choices they are small fleshy growths, bumps or skin changes anywhere on the genitals or around the anus or on the upper thighs.
If they are in the anus or inside the vagina or on the cervix you may not know they are there. You may just have one wart or a cluster which can look like a cauliflower.
Warts can appear weeks, months or years after infection with HPV - you may only have one episode, although many people find they recur.
Symptoms of genital warts:
Although they are usually painless, warts can itch, become inflamed or bleed.
They can also be uncomfortable and look unpleasant, which can be distressing.
If warts are not treated they may eventually go away, or they may stay the same size or grow larger.
What is the link between HPV and cancer?
There are two strains of HPV which are linked to 70% of cases of cervical cancer in the UK - types 16 and 18.
According to FPA, the strains of HPV that cause genital warts (types 6 and 11) do not cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, anus or penis.
How it's passed on:
During sex HPV is passed on when someone’s skin touches another person’s warts (which you won’t see if they’re inside the rectum or vagina). As well as through penetrative sex, HPV can be passed on through genital contact, sharing sex toys and (very rarely) through oral sex.
In extremely rare cases:
- a mother can pass HPV to her baby during birth
- someone can pass on HPV through warts on their hands, by touching someone’s genitals.
Sometimes the virus is passed on without any warts being present.
Using the male condom or a Femidom (female condom) cuts the risk - but only if the condom covers the skin where the wart virus is.
Other types of contraception, such as the contraceptive pill, offer no protection against sexually transmitted infections.
Tests and treatment
Genital warts must be treated by a doctor - treatments for warts that grow on the hands cannot be used. The sooner warts are treated, the easier it is to get rid of them.
Warts can be frozen off with liquid nitrogen, or a special kind of cream or acid can be put on them at a clinic or at home. Laser treatment and surgery can be used in hard-to-treat cases.
It can take several treatments to get rid of warts and they might come back. Don’t have sex (oral, vaginal or anal) until treatment has finished or you could pass on the infection.
Most people get tested and treated for infections such as warts at sexual health (or ‘GUM’) clinics. It is free and confidential; no-one else, including your GP, will be told about your visit. Some GP surgeries also test for and treat these infections.
The more people you have sex with (especially unprotected sex), the more chance of infections such as warts. You can have them without knowing, so regular check-ups are a good idea - especially if starting a new relationship or if you want to stop using condoms with your partner.
The HPV Vaccine
Currently all girls in the UK who are aged between 12-13 (those in Year 8) are offered vaccination against HPV (called Gardasil). There are over 100 different strains of the virus but the vaccination protects against the two strains which cause the majority of cases of genital warts (types 6 and 11).
HPV can also cause cervical cancer - the vaccination protects against the two strains of HPV which cause the majority of cases (types 16 and 18).
Terrence Higgins Trust is currently campaigning for boys to be vaccinated against HPV as well as girls.
Recently the Government announced it would be extending the HPV vaccination to men who have sex with men (MSM) aged up to 45 via sexual health clinics. We have welcomed this as a step in the right direction. However, the best approach would be to vaccinate all boys and all girls in school.
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