Genital warts

Genital warts are small lumps that grow in and around the genitals.

They are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) – a group of viruses that is also linked to certain types of cancer. An HPV vaccine is now available which can protect against several strains of HPV, including the ones most likely to cause genital warts and cervical cancer.

undefined Should you get the HPV vaccine? Dr Mike Evans

What causes genital warts?

Genital warts are passed on through skin-to-skin contact with someone who has HPV. This most commonly happens through sexual contact (vaginal or anal). However, you don't need to have penetrative sex to pass on the infection.

  • Correct usage of latex condoms greatly reduces, but does not eliminate, the risk of catching or spreading HPV, as skin-to-skin contact can happen around the condom.
  • Once you have been in contact with HPV, genital warts can can take months, even years to develop. However, you can spread the virus to other people even if you haven't yet developed warts. 
  • Most people with HPV virus infection do not know they have it. This is why women should have regular cervical smear to pick up changes in the cervix (caused by unknown HPV infection) that might lead to cancer if not treated.

What are the symptoms of genital warts?

Most people who come in contact with HPV will not develop genital warts. If you do develop warts, it could happen months, or even years, after you first came into contact with the virus.

Genital warts appear as small, fleshy bumps or growths found on and around the genital area. They can be so small that they can be difficult to see. You may have a single wart or they can grow in clusters with a cauliflower appearance.

Genital warts are usually painless, although they can become itchy and inflamed.

See your doctor if you think you might have genital warts, or if you have had sexual contact with someone who has HPV or genital warts.

How are genital warts treated?

Treatment for genital warts depends on the size and number of warts and where they are located. You do not need treatment if there are no visible warts.

There are two main types of treatment for genital warts:

  • Applying a cream or solution tothe warts (called topical treatment).
    • Examples include podophyllotoxin solution (Condyline®) or imiquimod cream (Aldara®).
    • These are available on prescription only. Do not use wart medications that you can buy at pharmacies – these are specially formulated for treating warts found on the hands and feet and are not suitable for the genital region. 
  • Freezing with liquid nitrogen, which destroys the tissue of the warts. This is done by your doctor every week until the warts have disappeared.  

For most people, it can take several months to remove the warts, so it is important to persevere with treatment. Although treatment can result in the disappearance of genital warts, the viral infection is not totally eliminated. The virus can remain dormant (inactive) in the skin after treatment. In many cases, warts do not return after a course of treatment but sometimes will return after a few years.

Read more about the treatment of genital warts.

Prevention of genital warts

The HPV vaccine

The HPV vaccine protects against certain strains of HPV including:

  • types 6 and 11, which cause around 90% of genital warts
  • types 16 and 18, which are linked to more than 70% of cases of cervical cancer.

In New Zealand, the HPV vaccine is available free to girls and young women up until their 20th birthday. Women of any age can still have the vaccination by visiting their family doctor and discussing whether it would be of benefit to them and how much it will cost.

The HPV vaccine is only able to prevent HPV infection; it does not treat the infection. For best protection girls need to be vaccinated before they are likely to be exposed to HPV, which means before they start having any sexual contact.

Learn more

HPV and treating genital warts The HPV Project (NZ)
Genital warts NHS choices (UK)

Credits: Health Navigator. Last reviewed: 02 Apr 2015