‘Everyone is going to get HPV, you can’t avoid it.’ – H. Hunter Handsfield (PHD Professor Emeritus of Medicine at the University of Washington)

Genital warts are a common sexually transmitted infection often caused by some low-risk types of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). There are over 100 different types of HPV, with some strains considered high-risk as they are associated with causing cancer, such as cervical cancer.

HPV causes most cases of cervical cell abnormalities and affects 80% of people. you will contract it at one point in your life. Most HPV infections can clear up on their own. In fact, 90% of HPV infections clear after two years once your body has learnt to fight the virus. However, in some cases, the virus can remain dormant for long periods of time and cause symptoms such as genital warts much later.

You can get rid of genital warts by receiving treatment such as:

  • Cream or liquids
  • Surgical removal
  • Cryotherapy (freezing the warts off)

Genital wart treatment varies from person to person. It can take weeks, or even months, for treatment to work. In rare circumstances, you may also experience recurrent infections.

Mike Asher, CEO and Chairman of Better2Know, emphasises the importance of genital wart treatment:

“The HPV viruses that cause genital warts are highly contagious and thus easily passed on to other people. Getting them treated and removed will not only help keep you safe but will help to prevent you passing them on to others. Getting vaccinated is another great way to stop the most common causes of warts and cervical cancers from harming you.”

What do genital warts look like?

Genital warts are skin growths around your genitals that can appear individually or grouped to form a cauliflower-like appearance. These bumps may be grey in colour or the colour of your skin. Areas that may also be affected include:

  • The vagina
  • The penis
  • The scrotum
  • Inside the vagina
  • Inside the anus
  • The cervix
  • The skin between your genitals and anus
  • Mouth
  • Throat

Other symptoms of genital warts can include:

  • Bleeding during sex
  • Genital discomfort
  • Itching

In some cases, you may not be able to see the genital warts. This could be because the warts are internal, or so small and flat that they are not visible. You can still pass on genital warts despite exhibiting no symptoms. So, it is important to get tested if you are worried about your sexual health.

How do you catch genital warts?

Genital warts can be passed even if there are no visible warts. Not all warts can be seen, for example, warts that are present in the cervix or the anus. Genital warts develop as a result of an HPV infection.

You can catch HPV through unprotected sex including vaginal, anal and oral contact. HPV is highly infectious and can be transferred through skin-to-skin contact alone. In some cases, you may have been infected with HPV however symptoms such as genital warts may not appear until a year or more after initial infection.

This means that if you test negative for HPV but your partner tests positive for HPV, it does not always mean they have cheated on you. It may be a long-latent infection that has recently been activated.

What is HPV?

HPV is a viral STI that is extremely common. There are over 150 types of the Human Papilloma Virus, each associated with being high-risk or low-risk strains. For example, HPV types 6 and 11 are seen as low-risk and often cause cases of genital warts. HPV types 16 and 18 are seen as high-risk strains and cause the most cases of cervical cancer.

Read more with Better2Know’s HPV and Genital Warts Factsheet

There are high levels of ignorance and shame associated with HPV despite how common the infection is. A recent survey from Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust revealed nearly 35% of women did not know about HPV and almost 60% thought it meant cancer.

Laura Flaherty talks about her experience with being HPV positive:

“When I first saw on my letter that I had been diagnosed as being HPV positive, I didn’t know what it was. When I Googled it I discovered it was a sexually transmitted infection, so I automatically thought my partner had been cheating.

“I knew nothing about it, and it felt dirty. I didn’t realise it could lay dormant for so long and when I realised how common HPV is I was shocked. No-one I spoke to had heard of it, yet most of us are going to contract it.”

There is a need to raise awareness about HPV; the normalisation of the infection will help combat stigma. Mr Asher continues:

“The HPV viruses are very common, and most people can expect to catch one at some point in their lives. Like the flu virus, you can treat any symptoms and will usually recover with no lasting problems. HPV is nothing to be ashamed of, it is really just a fact of life!”

Robert Music, Chief Executive, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, also shares this view:

“HPV can be confusing however, so we must normalise it to ensure people don’t feel ashamed or scared about being told they have the virus.”

Preventing HPV and Genital Warts

You can protect yourself against HPV and genital warts by getting the HPV vaccine. This will help prevent you from catching specific types of the virus, including the HPV strain that causes genital warts, in the first place.

You are also advised to use a condom when engaging in any form of sexual contact. If you are worried about genital warts, or your sexual health more generally, get in touch with Better2Know’s experienced sexual health advisors today for guidance.


[1] BBC: Busting the myths around sex virus HPV

[2] BBC: Cervical cancer screening campaigner Natasha Sale dies aged 31

[3] Gov: HPV primary cervical screening – October 2018 update

[4] Inverse: HPV Is Contagious for a “Complicated” Length of Time, Say Medical Experts

[5] NHS: Cervical Screening

[6] Oxford Mail: Oxford named as ‘genital warts capital of UK’

[7] Public Health England: HPV primary screening implementation: NHS England announces next steps

[8] Public Health England: What GPs need to know about the introduction of primary HPV testing in cervical screening

[9] SELF: What Even Are Genital Warts and How Do You Get Them?

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