If you’ve had unprotected sex or are worried about possible infection with genital warts or other STIs, get tested as soon as possible – even if you don’t have symptoms.

What are genital warts?

Genital warts (also called venereal warts) are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). There are over 100 different strains of HPV. Some strains have been associated with an increased risk of anal or cervical cancer, however, they are different from the HPV strains that cause genital warts. There is no association between genital warts and cancer.

Genital warts are small growths (things that grow on the skin), usually painless, and can sometimes look like a cauliflower. Unlike sores, they are normally painless, don’t bleed or make pus. They may appear as a single wart or as multiple warts.

Are genital warts a serious condition?

Warts can be treated, but the virus that causes them will remain in the body and cannot be cured. This means that many people with genital warts will experience recurrence. However, warts are not usually painful. They do not cause any other health problems.

How do I get genital warts?

Genital warts are transmitted from someone who has the virus. People who have the virus can pass it on even if they have no symptoms.

You can get it through:

  • vaginal or anal sex without a condom with someone who has genital warts (even if they have no symptoms)
  • oral sex without a condom or dental dam if the person has warts on their mouth or throat (although this is very rare)
  • if you use sex toys that are not washed or covered with a new condom every time you use them;
  • if your genitals come into contact with your partner’s genitals – this means you can get genital warts from someone even if there is no penetration, orgasm or ejaculation.

It is possible for warts on the hands to be transmitted to the genitals, but this is very rare.

You can’t get genital warts from kissing, hugging, swimming pools, sharing towels or cutlery.

Genital warts, HIV, and sexual health

  • If you have an STI, including genital warts, your risk of getting HIV increases. This is because most STIs cause lesions that make it easier for HIV to enter the body.
  • If you live with HIV and have genital warts, your viral load may be higher because your immune system is weaker. This will make you more likely to transmit HIV if you have sex without a condom.
  • However, if you have an undetectable viral load (because you are taking HIV treatment correctly), there is no evidence to show that genital warts infection increases your risk of transmitting HIV.
  • If you are taking antiretrovirals, it is important to talk to your doctor about how genital warts treatment might interact with HIV drugs.

How do I protect myself and others from genital warts?

  • Use a new condom (male or female) or a dental dam every time you have anal, vaginal or oral sex – they must cover the warts, otherwise they won’t protect you (warts may appear on areas they can’t cover, in which case it’s recommended to abstain from sexual contact until healed);
  • Use a new dental dam or latex gloves for rimming and fingering (exploring your partner’s anus with your fingers, mouth, or tongue) or use latex gloves for fisting.
  • Cover sex toys with a new condom and wash them after use.
  • Avoid rubbing or touching warts to avoid spreading the infection to the rest of your body.
  • Limit the number of sexual partners you have, remember to use a new condom for each partner and get tested regularly.
  • Get vaccinated:
    • In some places, vaccines are available to protect against certain types of HPV that can cause genital warts. It’s best to have the vaccine done before you start your sex life.
    • HPV vaccines do not guarantee that you will not develop genital warts in the future.
  • Talk about sexual health. Talking about it with your partners will make you safer sexually.

Note – apart from condoms, other types of contraception (such as contraceptive pills) or PrEP do not protect against sexually transmitted infections.

What are the symptoms of genital warts?

Most people infected with the virus that causes genital warts (HPV) will not develop visible warts. If you do have symptoms, you may not notice them until a few weeks or years after infection.

Symptoms include:

  • one or more painless, skin-colored or gray growths that may appear around the penis, anus or vagina, or on the upper thighs;
  • itching or bleeding around the penis, anus or vagina;
  • a change in your normal flow of urine (for example, going sideways) that does not persist.

Can I get tested for genital warts?

Yes – a doctor can quickly examine you to tell if you have genital warts. To check for hidden warts, the doctor may perform a painless internal examination of the anus or, in the case of women, the vagina and/or cervix. If you have trouble urinating, a doctor may examine your urethra (the tube that carries urine from the bladder to the outside).

If you have genital warts, you should also be tested for other STIs.

It’s a good idea to tell your sexual partner recently so they can be tested for warts; you may not have noticed them. Many people who have genital warts don’t notice anything, and by telling them, you can help stop the virus from spreading; you can also prevent reinfection.

How are genital warts treated?

There is no cure for the virus that causes genital warts, but chances are your body will heal itself over time. There is, however, treatment available to remove warts. The type of treatment you get will depend on the type of warts you have and their location.

There are two main types of treatment:

  • application of a cream, lotion or chemical that destroys warts by freezing
  • removal by cautery or laser

Consult a doctor before using any treatment. Many wart treatments are designed for use on the hands and feet and should not be used on the genitals.

It can take weeks or months for the treatment to work, and the warts may return. In some people, the treatments do not work. You may also be advised to avoid soaps, creams, or lotions during treatment as these can irritate the skin.

Don’t have sex until you or your partner have finished treatment and the warts are gone. If you can, it’s often recommended that you return for a check-up before resuming sexual activity.

Note – you can get genital warts even if you’ve had them before. The treatment removes the warts but doesn’t make you immune – that means you can get infected again.

Complications of genital warts

Genital warts generally don’t have many complications and can be easily treated. However, as with most STIs, genital warts put you at risk of infection with other STIs, including HIV.