- Genital warts are lumps that appear in the genital area, cervix, anus and rectum (back passage), and sometimes around your mouth.
- They are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which spreads through sexual contact.
- There are many types of HPV — the types that cause genital warts don't cause cancer.
- Genital warts can be removed with creams, cryotherapy or laser, but treatment won't get rid of the virus itself, which usually clears up by itself within 2 years.
- You can reduce your risk of genital warts by using condoms and being vaccinated.
What are genital warts?
Genital warts are lumps on genital areas, such as the vagina, vulva, penis and scrotum. They are sexually transmitted and very common.
The warts can also appear on your cervix, around your anus and rectum (back passage), in your urethra (the tube that carries urine out of your body) or around your mouth.
What are the symptoms of genital warts?
Genital warts are usually painless, but they may be itchy. They can be bumpy, flat or appear in clusters.
If you have genital warts, you might also notice:
- differences in your stream of urine
- blood in your urine
- blood in your stool (bowel motions, poo)
- pain or bleeding during sex
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What causes genital warts?
Genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). You can catch the HPV virus through skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, anal or oral sex, or by sharing sex toys.
There are about 40 types of HPV that can infect the genital and anal area. Some types can cause warts — the most common are HPV types 6 and 11. Other types of HPV are associated with cancers, such as cervical cancer and anal cancer. The types of HPV that cause genital warts are unlikely to cause cancer.
Genital warts are very contagious, and about 2 in every 3 people who have sex with someone infected with genital warts will catch the virus. The warts will usually appear within 3 months of contact. If you have HPV but no symptoms, you can still pass it on to someone else. Most people who have HPV don't have warts, so they don't know they are infected.
If you have had one type of HPV, you could still be infected by other types.
When should I see my doctor?
If you have symptoms of genital warts, see your doctor.
If you have warts inside your anus, you might need to see a surgeon. If you have warts on your cervix, you might need to see a gynaecologist.
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How are genital warts diagnosed?
A doctor will usually diagnose genital warts by looking at the bumps on your skin. Occasionally, you might need to have a biopsy to make sure they are not cancerous.
The doctor may suggest you are checked for other sexually transmitted infections at the same time.
How are genital warts treated?
Genital warts may clear up without treatment. However, if they are painful, unsightly, itchy or uncomfortable they can be treated.
Treatment doesn't get rid of the virus itself, just the warts. Your immune system will usually clear the virus within 1 to 2 years. However, in some people the virus may not go away.
Treatment options include:
- wart paint
- freezing the warts with liquid nitrogen (also called cryotherapy)
- laser treatment
- cream to trigger the immune system to fight the HPV virus
Treatments for other types of warts are not suitable for genital warts. See your doctor to discuss treatment options.
It's best not to wax or shave in areas with genital warts, as this can cause the warts to spread.
Can genital warts be prevented?
The HPV vaccine protects you against HPV types 6 and 11, which cause most genital warts. It also protects you against most of the types of HPV that cause cancer. However, the vaccine doesn't protect against all types of HPV.
If you have a cervix, are aged 25 to 74 and have ever been sexually active, you should have a cervical screening test every 5 years. The cervical screening test detects HPV and has replaced the Pap smear.
Safe sex can reduce your risk of catching genital warts.
Condoms reduce the risk of infection by HPV, but don't completely stop the spread of the virus. However, condoms provide protection against other sexually transmitted infections and are an important part of safe sex for many people.
What are the complications of genital warts?
Remember, if you have genital warts you are not at higher risk of cancers in the genital area.
HPV types 6 and 11 can cause a rare but serious condition called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis, which causes warts in the airways and lungs.
If you give birth while you have genital warts, there is a risk your baby could get warts in their throat. In rare cases, they could develop recurrent respiratory papillomatosis.
Resources and support
For more information about genital warts, HPV or cervical cancer, visit your doctor or local sexual health clinic, or find out about sexual health services for your state or territory at Family Planning Alliance Australia.
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Last reviewed: November 2022