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What are genital warts and HPV?

Genital warts is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that causes painless growths to develop in and around the genitals/anus. It is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Once the virus is in your body it can cause recurring outbreaks of genital warts.

The majority of genital warts cases are caused by just two strains of HPV. Other HPV strains can cause cell changes that may lead to cervical cancer, but these are not the same as the strains that cause genital warts.

How do you get genital warts and HPV?

Most people contract the human papillomavirus during sex. You can catch it by having contact with skin affected by warts, and sharing sex toys. It’s also possible to contract HPV during oral sex, although this is more rare.

It’s possible to pass on HPV even if you’re not experiencing symptoms. In some cases, transmission may occur because the warts are not visible (e.g. they are inside the vagina or rectum).

Symptoms

The key symptom of genital warts is the growth of fleshy lumps inside or around your genitals or anus. The warts can be sore, but for most people they are painless. You might experience some itching or bleeding, or a change in how you urinate e.g. the flow of urine may go off to one side.

It can take months and, in some cases, years for warts to develop after you have contracted HPV.

Tests

If you develop the kinds of growths described above you should visit a doctor. To determine a diagnosis they will look closely at the growths and ask about your sexual history. Depending on where the warts are, the doctor may have to look inside your vagina, anus or urethra.

Treatment

There is no permanent cure for genital warts or HPV, but in the short term, you can receive treatment that helps get rid of the growths. The most common treatments are:

  • A cream or liquid applied directly to the warts
  • Surgery using local anaesthetic to cut away the warts
  • Freezing with liquid nitrogen until the warts fall off

It can take weeks or months for treatment to work, and you may find that your warts return. However it is possible for your body to fight off the virus over time.

 

Content reviewed by Jemma Shafier, a Doctor Care Anywhere GP