Genital warts: symptoms, treatment and prevention

Genital warts is a very common STI in Ireland

Written by spunout


Genital warts are warts in the genital area (penis, testicles, vulva, anus and upper legs) caused by a virus called the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). There are some types of HPV that may lead to cancer, however, the types of HPV that cause genital warts do not cause cancer.

Genital warts are similar to warts you can get on other parts of the body. They are usually painless and harmless. Warts may sometimes go away on their own without treatment but can stay for months or even years. If you have genital warts, it is recommended that you have routine tests for all sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and HIV. Find your nearest sexual health clinic to book a free test.

How do you get genital warts?

Genital warts are caused by skin-to-skin contact in and around the genital area, with someone with the HPV virus. Genital warts can be passed through anal, oral and vaginal sex, but also by rubbing genitals and the area around the genitals together.

What do genital warts look like?

Genital warts are often flesh-coloured lumps or bumps on the skin, anywhere in the genital or anal area. They may appear weeks to months after you come into contact with the HPV virus.

Can I be tested for genital warts?

If you think you might have genital warts you will need to visit a sexual health clinic or your GP to have them diagnosed. Genital warts are diagnosed by a doctor or nurse examining the affected area. You might feel apprehensive, but going for a check-up is the best way to ensure you get the right treatment if you have something. Having genital warts is no different to getting any other sort of virus such as a cold sore or COVID-19. HPV is common and it is nothing to be embarrassed about.

How are genital warts treated?

Sometimes genital warts go away on their own without treatment, but they can also be treated. Treatments can take a few weeks or months to work, but will only remove warts on the skin and not the virus in the body. This means that even if the warts go away, you will still have HPV in your system and they may come back in the future.

Treatments of genital warts include:

  • Genital warts creams or lotions which can be used at home
  • Cryotherapy (freezing)
  • Surgery – if the warts are severe and do not respond to other treatments

Do my sexual partners need to get tested?

It is recommended that anyone who is sexually active goes for regular STI check-ups. If you think that you have an STI it is important to encourage those who you have had sex with to also go for a check-up. If you do have an STI, the nurse or doctor you attend will be able to give you advice on speaking to your partner/s about your diagnosis. You can also read our article on telling your partner you have an STI for more information.

Is it ok to have sex again?

Genital warts can be treated, but they can’t be cured. If you remove warts, you will still have the virus that causes them. The virus may go away at some point on its own, but there’s no way to know for sure. This means that if you chose to have sex again there is a chance your partner/s could get HPV and maybe genital warts. 

Most sexually active people have been exposed to HPV at some time but have not had any symptoms, so those you have sex with may be immune. They may also have had the HPV vaccine in the past and be protected against the virus. It is important to be honest with those you want to have sex with and to let them know about having genital warts. Having an open conversation can allow them to make an informed decision about the type of relationship they want to have with you.

How does the HPV vaccine protect against genital warts?

There is a vaccine which protects against the main types of HPV (types 6 and 11 which cause genital warts, and types 16 and 18 which cause the majority of HPV-related cancers).

The HPV vaccine is offered to all students in Ireland in 1st year of secondary school through their school. If you did not receive the vaccine in school you can also pay to have it privately but it is most effective to have the vaccine between the age of 9 and 15.

The HPV vaccine is also available to some men who have sex with men (MSM) through public sexual health clinics and to some people living with HIV who attend sexual health and HIV clinics. You can speak to your nurse or doctor for more information about HPV vaccine and find out if it’s suitable for you. 

Having genital warts in pregnancy

Some people who have been exposed to HPV previously, may get genital warts during pregnancy. This is due to changes to the body’s immune system when pregnant. Having genital warts rarely affects a baby. If you have genital warts and are pregnant it can help to speak to your nurse or doctor about it. They will be able to reassure you about the safety of your baby.

How can I protect myself against genital warts?

There are many great options to help protect your sexual health, but none of them are 100% effective. Even if you use condoms every time you have penetrative sex, you are still at risk of getting genital warts and herpes, as these can be passed through skin-to-skin contact. Going for an STI check or taking a home STI testing kit with a partner before having sex, can be a great way of protecting yourself and those you have sex with against STIs and HIV. However, not all STI checks check for all STIs, so it is important to speak to your healthcare provider and ask them what is being tested for as part of your screening.

Discussing with your sexual partners the type of contraception or protection options available to you, and agreeing on a type that works for everyone involved can help to reduce the risk of pregnancy, STIs and HIV. Looking out for sores or symptoms on a partner’s genitals before having sex with them, can help to identify STIs that they may not be aware of. If you do see any signs that someone may have an STI, do not have sex with them until you know for certain it is safe to do so. Asking someone about their sexual health history is the responsible thing to do before having sex, and it should not be taken as an insult if someone asks you about yours.  

Looking after your mental health after an STI diagnosis 

If you are diagnosed with an STI, you might feel a mixture of emotions. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma in our society surrounding STIs that can cause some people to feel shame about having one. However, like any other healthcare diagnosis, you are not to blame for your STI and have not done anything “wrong”. Being diagnosed with an STI can have a negative impact on your mental health and wellbeing and if you don’t feel comfortable telling friends or family about it, you might feel isolated and alone. If you have found out you have an STI and you’re finding it difficult to cope, there are things you can do to support your mental health. 

  • Remember that STIs are common and lots of people have one at some point in their life, even though they aren’t talked about a lot 
  • Take time out to do something you enjoy and practice self-care
  • Reach out for mental health support if you need it. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to a friend or family member, our 24/7 anonymous text service, 50808, can help
  • Be patient with yourself and allow yourself to feel your emotions. It’s ok to be upset when you find out you need healthcare treatment. It’s important to take the time you need to adjust

Feeling overwhelmed and want to talk to someone?

If you are a customer of the 48 or An Post network or cannot get through using the ‘50808’ short code please text HELLO to 086 1800 280 (standard message rates may apply). Some smaller networks do not support short codes like ‘50808’.

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