Genital warts are a viral sexually transmitted infection caused by HPV, but what is that and how do we keep ourselves safe?
What are genital warts?
They are small growths and bumps that develop on and around the genital/anal area. They’re also the most commonly diagnosed viral STI in the UK.
How do people get genital warts?
They are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). There are lots of different types of HPV which affect different parts of the body. 90% of genital warts come from two types of HPV: types 6 and 11. HPV is generally passed on through skin-to-skin contact with someone who has the virus. Genital warts can be passed on even if they’re not visible and through various types of sexual activity:
- vaginal sex
- anal sex
- oral sex (rare)
- non-penetrative genital-to-genital contact
- sharing sex toys without using different condoms or washing them properly in between uses
Warts around the anal area are often associated with penetrative anal sex, however not always. People can still get anal warts if they don’t have anal sex. These warts aren’t transmitted by kissing, hugging, sharing baths, sharing towels or cups, via toilet seats or in swimming pools.
What are the signs and symptoms of genital warts?
HPV is extremely common; most people will get a type of HPV at some point in their life and they often won’t know it! HPV rarely shows symptoms.
It can be months or years before genital warts appear, which means they don’t necessarily relate to our latest sexual partner. The warts can appear on their own or in clusters. Usually they’re painless, but they can be itchy or become inflamed which may cause some bleeding. The most common parts of the body to see these are:
- the opening of the vagina (the vulva)
- the cervix
- inside the vagina
- around/inside the anus
- the upper thighs
- the penis
- the scrotum
- inside the urethra (for men or those with penises)
How can I check if I do have genital warts?
If you think you have them, or if a partner has them, visit a sexual health clinic, a GUM clinic, a Brook service or your GP surgery. Find your nearest service here. There’s no test for genital warts, apart from examining them if they appear. However, it’s easy for a doctor or nurse to diagnose them with an examination. This examination may have to be thorough, to check if there are any inside the vagina and/or anus.
What happens if I do have genital warts?
There’s no cure, however there is treatment. The treatment will be prescribed by a doctor and it will depend on the warts. Softer warts can be treated with a cream or lotion. If they’re harder or rough-feeling, you can remove them or freeze them.
If left untreated, they may go away but they may also grow larger or multiply. The warts don’t cause further health risks, but they can cause discomfort. It’s advised that you avoid any sexual activity until they’ve completely healed. This helps to ensure you don’t pass the virus onto others, as well as helping you to recover faster.
Previous sexual partners (from the last 6 months) also need to know. This can feel nerve-wracking, but they may have the infection as well and need treatment. If it feels too difficult to talk to previous sexual partners, some clinics offer a ‘partner notification’ service that warns them of potential exposure to a STI without mentioning any names.
How do I keep myself safe from genital warts?
Barrier methods of contraception, like condoms, can help to protect from genital warts. However, condoms don’t cover all the skin area, so you’re not completely protected. Dental dams are another barrier method for flat skin surfaces, like the vulva or anus.
Most of the time, people don’t know they have HPV and it doesn’t cause any problems. But some types can cause genital warts, and other types can cause abnormal cell changes. These abnormal cell changes can sometimes turn into cancer, which is why cervical screening is so important. This screening is offered to women and people with a cervix from the age of 25, you’ll be notified when you’re due an appointment and it’s important to attend. The HPV vaccine has also been introduced into schools now (since September 2019), in order to protect against the types of HPV that are most likely to cause genital warts and cancers.
There’s a stigma surrounding STIs but they’re very common, especially HPV. There’s nothing dirty or wrong about having a STI, they’re part of being sexually active, but we do need to test regularly and keep ourselves safe. It’s also important to know about our genital area; it’s easier to notice any changes if we know what it looks like normally. Just like we’re hyper aware of our faces and if any spots or bumps appear, it’s healthy to be aware of our genital area too.