Genital warts are a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by viruses of the human papillomavirus (HPV) group. The virus can be passed on during sex, through skin-to-skin genital contact. Most people who have sex will catch HPV at some time but only a small number will go on to develop genital warts.
If you have genital warts, you’ll have noticed or felt small growths in your genital area.
Women may notice warts outside the vagina and around the anus. Sometimes they develop inside the vagina or anus. Men may notice warts on the shaft or head of the penis and in the opening of the tube pee comes out of (urethra). Men can also get warts around and inside the anus.
The warts are usually skin-coloured or whitish lumps and can look like tiny cauliflowers. They can be hard or soft and occur either on their own or in groups.
The warts might be itchy but they don’t usually cause pain or discomfort.
Genital warts develop after skin-to-skin contact with someone who has HPV in their skin. You don’t need to have had penetrative sex, just to have touched your genital area with theirs.
Many people do not have visible warts but carry the virus and can still pass it on.
If you come into contact with HPV you might develop warts in 3-18 months but it can take longer. You might develop symptoms years afterwards, so it’s difficult to know when you caught it.
Having unprotected sex while you have warts makes it much more likely you’ll pass them on. Using a condom may protect your partner from infection, if it covers the warts and if it’s put on before there’s any skin contact.
You shouldn’t have sex just after you’ve used wart creams or lotions. They will transfer to your partner and can also damage latex condoms and diaphragms.
Just like any STI, the best way to avoid catching genital warts (or getting infected again) is to use a condom when you have any type of sex. But condoms can’t fully protect you, as they don’t cover all of the skin around your genitals.
The HPV vaccine offered to girls and boys in the UK to protect against cervical cancer can also protect against genital warts.
It’s likely that the warts will clear up by themselves over time as your body gets on top of the virus.
But if you don’t get treated, the warts may increase in size and number. You’ll also be more likely to pass them on to your sexual partners.
You may have heard that HPV can be linked to cancer. Almost all genital warts are caused by HPV 6 and HPV 11 and these types are ‘low risk’. It’s extremely rare for genital warts to become cancerous.
It’s common for genital warts to appear or reappear during pregnancy due to changes in the way your immune system handles the virus. You can still get treatment during pregnancy but it can be more complex and you’ll need to see your GP in person. We don’t prescribe genital warts treatment online if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Speak to your midwife if you’re unsure about what to do.
If you’ve got genital warts, we recommend getting tested for other STIs as it’s common to have more than one STI at the same time. You can get at-home STI test kits through Boots Online Doctor Service.
You should also get in touch with any recent sexual partners so that they can get tested and, if needed, treated. Even if they don’t have symptoms, they may still have picked up the virus. We don’t yet offer testing for genital warts but it’s available at sexual health clinics.
Page last reviewed by: Dr. Christina Hennessey 21/06/2021