Genital warts are small fleshy growths, bumps or skin changes that appear on or around the genital or anal area.
Genital warts are very common. In England, they are the second most common type of sexually transmitted infection (STI) after chlamydia.
Genital warts are the result of a viral skin infection caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). They are usually painless and do not pose a serious threat to health. However, they can appear unsightly and cause psychological distress.
Learn more in symptoms of genital warts.
The human papillomavirus (HPV)
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is not a single virus, but a family of over 100 different strains of viruses.
Most cases of infection with HPV cause no visible symptoms. Around 90% of all cases of genital warts are caused by two strains of the virus, type 6 and type 11.
Other strains of HPV can cause cervical cancer. See cervical cancer for more information about this condition.
How do they spread?
Genital warts can be spread during vaginal or anal sex, and by sharing sex toys. However, you do not need to have penetrative sex to pass the infection on because HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact. Learn more in causes of genital warts.
It can take up to one year for warts to develop after infection with HPV. Therefore, if you are in a relationship and you get genital warts, it does not necessarily mean your partner has been having sex with other people.
HPV is most likely to be transmitted to others when warts are present, although it is still possible to pass the virus on before the warts have developed and after they have disappeared.
Condoms do not provide complete protection because it is possible for the skin around your genital area (not covered by the condom) to become infected.
Learn more in prevention of genital warts.
Treating genital warts
If you think you have genital warts, see a health professional as they need to be treated.
Wart creams available over-the-counter (OTC) will not work because they are designed to only treat warts on the hands.
You can make an appointment at your local sexual health or genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic.
You can go to a sexual health clinic whatever age you are. If youre under 16, the service is still confidential and the clinic wont tell your parents. Find your local sexual health or GUM clinic.
Several treatments are available, such as creams and cryotherapy (freezing the warts), and they have a good rate of success. However, many treatments can take up to three months before they are fully effective.
If you are diagnosed with genital warts, it is recommended you do not have sex, including anal and oral sex, until your genital warts have fully healed. This will help prevent you passing the infection on to others. It will also help speed your recovery.
Learn more in treating genital warts.
Who is affected?
According to the Health Protection Agency, in 2010 there were 75,615 new cases of genital warts diagnosed by GUM (genitor-urinary medicine) clinics in England. This compares with 189,612 new cases of chlamydia in 2010.
Genital warts are most common in sexually active teenagers and young adults. The highest rates of genital warts occur in males between 20 to 24 years of age and females between 16 and 19 years of age.