By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
Genital warts are growths, skin changes or bumps that occur around the genital area or anal area. These venereal warts are the most common recognisable symptom of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, although a different HPV strain causes genital warts to the one that leads to anal and cervical cancers.
Genital warts are a highly contagious sexually transmitted infection that can be spread through skin-to-skin contact during oral, vaginal or anal sex with a person who has the virus.
Transmission of genital warts
There are over 100 strains of HPV and almost all sexually active individuals transmit HPV at some point in their lives. In the majority of cases, the infection does not cause symptoms but certain HPV strains can cause genital warts. The infection is usually spread through sexual intercourse but penetrative sex is not always necessary for the infection to be transmitted, since HPV can be caught from skin-to skin contact.
Genital warts may not develop for up to a year after the infection has been transmitted and it is possible to pass the virus on to a partner both before and after the warts have actually developed.
The strains of HPV that can cause genital warts include strains 6, 11, 30, 42, 43, 44, 45, 51, 52 and 54. Of these, strains 6 and 11 account for nearly 90% of cases. Genital warts go on to develop in nearly 70% of individuals who come into sexual contact with an infected partner.
Who is affected?
Genital warts affect thousands of sexually active adults both in the United Kingdom and in the Unites States. In England, genital warts is the second most common sexually transmitted infection after Chlamydia.
The type of wart cream that can be bought over the counter is not an effective treatment for genital warts, as those creams are designed to treat hand warts. However, creams that can be used to treat genital warts are available through sexual health clinics, as is cryotherapy, a technique used to freeze and kill the warts.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc
Last Updated: Jul 20, 2014