What causes genital warts?

Dr. Babak Ashrafi

Medically reviewed by

Dr Babak Ashrafi

Last reviewed: 29 Mar 2022

Genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) and are a type of sexually transmitted infection (STI). Genital warts are not a type of cancer. However, a long term HPV infection can increase your chances of getting cervical cancer.

If you’ve got genital warts, you can get them treated with prescription medication such as Warticon and Condyline. You can also get surgery to remove genital warts, though you’ll be offered this option if medication does not work.

There is no cure for genital warts but there are ways to manage and treat the symptoms. Your body will eventually fight the virus over time and it can go away after a few years.

Woman with short hair sat on couch at home looking at mobile phone researching causes of genital warts

What are genital warts?

Genital warts are skin growths that appear around your genitals although you might not always see them. Visible warts can be skin coloured or slightly darker than your skin and might look like cauliflower growths. They can be painful and cause irritation. You may feel itchy in those areas which can lead to bleeding.

Genital warts can grow in various places. In women, you can get warts:

  • in or around your vagina
  • on the vulva
  • on the cervix

For men, you can get warts on your penis or scrotum. You can get genital warts in or around your anus if you’ve had unprotected anal sex, whether you’re a man or woman.

As they can form lumps on your skin, genital warts might change how you pee. Peeing differently, such as getting a sideways stream of pee, can mean warts are growing inside the penis.

You might get confused between genital warts and other types of growths or blemishes around your genitals. You can read our guide for the signs and symptoms of genital warts for more information.

What is HPV?

HPV is the name of a group of viruses called human papillomaviruses. There are over 100 different types of HPV. Some of these strains are relatively harmless which your immune system can fight off. It can take your body around 2 years to clear HPV from your system.

Some high risk strains of the virus can cause changes in your cervical cells, called dysplasia. This leads to your cells turning precancerous. Precancerous cells can eventually develop into cervical cancer.

High risk strains may not give you any symptoms, and you might not realise you have HPV unless you have a smear test.

In the UK, you’ll be offered cervical screening if you are aged between 25 and 64. The screening does not check for cancer but for certain high risk strains of HPV. If you test positive, you can then get the appropriate care needed.

You can get the HPV vaccine to protect yourself against high risk strains of the virus.

How do you get genital warts?

Genital warts are passed on when HPV is transmitted through skin to skin contact. This can be during vaginal or anal sex. While it’s rare for genital warts to be passed on via oral sex, this can still happen.

You can also get genital warts if you share sex toys between partners without cleaning them. To clean sex toys, wash them in warm soapy water or use an alcohol based cleaning product to disinfect them. This will help kill any viruses or bacteria that may be on them.

Skin to skin transmission is different to being transmitted through bodily fluids, like with HIV. Even if you use condoms, if a part of your skin touches your partner’s and they have HPV, they can still pass it on to you.

Remember that your sexual partner may have the HPV virus without having genital warts. It’s a good idea to get tested if you’re with a new partner to make sure both of you are protected.

How to get rid of genital warts

To get rid of genital warts you can try treatments such as Warticon and Condyline.

Podophyllotoxin cream or solution prevents the growth of warts. You’ll need to use this treatment for a few weeks to get rid of warts completely. Warticon and Condyline are brand names for podophyllotoxin treatment.

Imiquimod, also known as Aldara cream, is another topical medication used to treat warts. It can take several weeks of treatment to remove all genital warts and residual growths. Your doctor will advise you on the best duration of treatment.

If topical treatment does not work, you may be offered surgery or cryotherapy. Cryotherapy involves freezing the wart with liquid nitrogen. Your doctor may repeat the procedure a few times for the wart to be removed completely. You may feel some pain, soreness or blistering after cryotherapy, but this is temporary.

Sometimes you may not need to do anything to get rid of genital warts — around 30% of cases of genital warts disappear within 6 months. Your immune system will be fighting the virus to get rid of it. However, in most cases, this can take years, so it’s best to treat genital warts to prevent them from affecting your quality of life.

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Medically reviewed by:
Dr Babak Ashrafi Clinical Lead for Service Expansion

Babak studied medicine at King’s College London and graduated in 2003, having also gained a bachelor’s degree in Physiology during his time there. He completed his general practice (GP) training in East London, where he worked for a number of years as a partner at a large inner-city GP practice. He completed the Royal College of GPs membership exam in 2007.

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Last reviewed: 29 Mar 2022

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