HPV and genital warts – what's the link?
Reviewed by our clinical team
Most of us have heard of both genital herpes or human papillomavirus (HPV) – but did you know that HPV is the virus that causes genital warts? Read on to find out more about the connection, and how to avoid and treat symptoms.
What causes genital warts?
Genital warts are fleshy growths that develop around the genitals and/or anus, or inside the rectum or vagina. They’re usually painless but sometimes they can be itchy or uncomfortable - they can sometimes bleed if they become very large.
Sometimes genital warts are so small that they’re not visible. In rare cases they can multiply and form large clusters – usually this happens in people who have a weakened immune system.
All genital warts are caused by strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV). The virus is spread through skin-to-skin contact, which means you can get genital warts from having vaginal or anal sex, by sharing sex toys, or simply through touching and rubbing. It’s also possible to get warts from oral sex, although this is rare.
HPV lives just beneath skin, and it can take several months for warts to appear after you’re first infected. Once you develop warts you can leave them to go away on their own, or you can get treatment to have them removed. Sometimes the warts can come back even after successful treatment. This could be because you've picked up a different strain, you've become re-infected or because the treatment didn't remove the virus completely.
It’s important to understand that the wart virus can be passed on even if there are no visible warts. This is why it’s important to practise safe sex at all times, and be communicative with any sexual partners if you have, or have recently had, genital warts.
Does HPV always cause genital warts?
No, not all HPV strains cause genital warts. Over 95% of genital warts are caused by just two strains of HPV: 6 and 11. So, unless you have been infected with a "wart-producing" strain you won't get genital warts. Sometimes your immune system is so good at clearing the virus that you might never see a wart even though you've been infected with the virus.
It’s worth noting that certain strains of HPV, so called high-rsik HPV, can lead to cell changes that may cause cancer – most commonly, cervical cancer. This is why it’s important for sexually active women to attend their scheduled cervical screenings (i.e. smear tests).
How contagious are HPV and genital warts?
Unfortunately, HPV and genital warts are very contagious. The virus can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, which means you don’t have to have penetrative sex to pass it on or catch it.
Will genital warts go away?
Left untreated, genital warts can go away on their own after several months. However, in some cases the warts will come back.
If you do get genital warts and you don't want to wait for your body to get rid of them, you have several options. At Online Doctor we can prescribe two topical treatments – Aldara and Warticon – that you can apply at home. Other treatments include surgery and freezing.
Current treatments are not 100% effective; some treatments just remove the visible aspect of the wart but not the virus underneath the skin. Other treatments target the virus underneath the skin, but they can't usually clear all of it. This is why warts can come back.
Does the HPV vaccine prevent genital warts?
The main purpose of the HPV vaccine is to reduce transmission of “high-risk” HPV strains – in other words, strains that are more likely to cause cell changes leading to cancer. A secondary purpose is to prevent genital warts.
The effect of this is already being seen: since the introduction of the HPV vaccine fewer young people are getting genital warts.
There’s more than one type of HPV vaccine but those used by the NHS and LloydsPharmacy (Gardasil and Gardasil 9) both give protection against the HPV strains 6 and 11 – the two types that cause most cases of genital warts.
You can get the HPV vaccine for free on the NHS if you fall into one of the following categories:
- You are under 25 and were eligible for the vaccine in school but missed it
- You are a man who has sex with men and are under the age of 45
Some trans men and women will also be eligible for a free vaccine if their risk is considered to be high.
If you’re not eligible for a free vaccine on the NHS you can order one through LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor. We offer Gardasil 9, the most advanced version of the vaccine, which offers protection against nine different strains of HPV that are known to cause cancer or genital warts.
Find out more at our online HPV vaccine clinic.
How can I avoid catching HPV and genital warts?
It can be difficult to avoid sexually transmitted HPV if you’re sexually active, as it’s so easily spread. The good news is that most strains aren't harmful and your immune system will get rid of them.
The best way to avoid getting high risk HPV (the strains that are linked to certain cancers) and genital warts is to get vaccinated. Other than that, make sure you always practise safe sex with any new or casual partners whose STI status isn’t clear.
Safe sex means:
- Using condoms and dental dams
- Using water-based lubes to prevent condom breakage
- Never sharing sex toys without cleaning them between uses or covering them with a fresh condom
- Avoiding sex if you or your partner has any STI symptoms, including growths, bumps, or sores around their genitals
- Avoiding sex if you or your partner is having any treatment for an STI
If you think you might have genital warts, it’s a good idea to visit a sexual health or GUM clinic to get checked. You can also use our genital photo assessment service if you’d prefer not to have a face-to-face appointment.