Genital Warts

Genital warts are small fleshy growths which may appear anywhere on a man or woman's genital area. They are caused by a virus called human papilloma virus (HPV).

There are more than 60 different types of HPV. Some types cause warts to grow on the genitals, others cause warts to grow on different parts of the body, such as the hands.

Signs and symptoms

After you have been infected with the genital wart virus it usually takes between 1 and 3 months for warts to appear on your genitals.

You or your partner may notice pinkish/white small lumps or larger cauliflower-shaped lumps on the genital area. Warts can appear around the vulva, the penis, the scrotum or the anus. They may occur singly or in groups. They may itch, but are usually painless. Often there are no other symptoms, and the warts may be difficult to see. In women genital warts can develop inside the vagina and on the cervix. If a woman has warts on her cervix, this may cause slight bleeding or, very rarely, an unusual coloured vaginal discharge.

Not everyone who comes into contact with the virus will develop warts.

How genital warts are passed on?

Genital warts are spread through skin-to-skin contact.

If you have sex or genital contact with someone who has genital warts you may develop them too.

They can be passed on during vaginal or anal sex.

(It is possible for warts to spread to the area around the anus without having anal sex.)

The tests for genital warts

A doctor or nurse can usually tell whether you have genital warts just by looking. If warts are suspected but not obvious, the doctor may apply a weak vinegar-like solution to the outside of the genital area. This turns any warts white.

To check for any hidden warts, the doctor may carry out an internal examination of the vagina or anus.

You can be checked as soon as you think you may have been in contact with the virus. Some people diagnosed with the virus won't develop visible warts straight away, and you may be asked to come back for another examination.

Diagnosis and Treatment

As genital warts are caused by a virus and not a bacteria, antibiotics will not get rid of them.

A common treatment is a brown liquid (podophyllin) which is painted on to the wart(s) and must be washed off 4 hours later (or sooner, if the area is irritated). The clinic may prescribe podophylotoxin for use at home.

Another common treatment is freezing the warts or laser treatment. Often more than one kind of treatment is necessary before the warts are gone.

These treatments may be uncomfortable, but they should not be painful. If your treatment hurts, tell the doctor.

You should get individual advice about having sex during treatment from your doctor, nurse or health adviser.

Never try to treat genital warts by yourself. Always seek medical advice.

If you're pregnant, or trying to become pregnant, it is important that you tell your doctor, as podophyllin treatment could harm the developing baby and another treatment will be used.

Taking care of yourself and your partner

If you have genital warts:

• Keep your genitals clean and dry
• Don't use scented soaps and bath oils or vaginal deodorants, as these may irritate the warts
• Use condoms when having sex. Remember, condoms will only protect against the wart virus if they cover the affected areas
• Make sure that your partner has a check-up too, as they may have warts which they haven't noticed.

Follow-up

It is important to return regularly for treatment until your genital warts have gone so that the doctor or nurse can check progress and make any necessary changes in your treatment. Sometimes treatment can take a long time.

The majority of people whose genital warts initially disappear will get a recurrence.

Warts and the cervix

Some types of the genital wart virus may be linked to changes in cervical cells which can lead to cancer. Although there is no direct link between genital warts and cancer of the cervix, it is important that all women over 20 years of age have a regular cervical smear test.

If a problem is suspected a colposcopy is done to look at cells on the cervix. A colposcope is a kind of small telescope with a light which is used to view the cervix. The scope magnifies the cells so the doctor can detect any changes. The doctor may take a small sample of cells (called a biopsy), which will be looked at in a laboratory.

The colposcopy may feel uncomfortable. If you have a biopsy taken you may have a dull ache like a mild period pain, with slight bleeding.
If you have genital warts on your cervix or vagina, they'll usually be removed by freezing or by laser treatment under local anaesthetic.

Remember, after treatment, using condoms can reduce your risk of getting or passing on sexually transmitted infections.