What are genital warts and HPV?

Genital warts are warts that form around the genitals and anus. They're caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), a common STI.

Most HPV infections are harmless, don't cause any symptoms, and clear up without treatment. However, different types of HPV can cause cell changes that can lead to cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth and throat.

How HPV is transmitted

HPV spreads through tiny breaks in the skin. You can get HPV through skin-to-skin contact during oral, vaginal, and anal sex with someone who has the infection.

HPV is most contagious when warts are present on the skin. But it's possible to catch HPV when warts aren't visible, which is why the virus is so common.

Symptoms of HPV

Many people with HPV don’t have any symptoms. This is because the immune system helps keep the infection under control. When symptoms do show, warts can appear as fleshy growths or lumps.

Some warts may be hard to see because they grow inside the vagina, cervix or anus. You may notice some unusual itching, pain or bleeding if you have warts in these parts of your body.

Preventing HPV

Condoms help stop spread of HPV, but don’t completely take away the risk. This is because condoms don’t cover all the areas where genital warts can grow.

There’s a free HPV vaccine through the Queensland School Immunisation Program that prevents some types of HPV infection and helps protect against cervical and anal cancer. It’s best to get it before you become sexually active, but your healthcare provider can give you a 'catch-up' vaccine up until you're 25.

Testing for HPV

A clinician can diagnose genital warts on sight if you have symptoms.

If you have a cervix, it is recommended you have a Cervical Screening Test every 5 years. Screening can detect early HPV and cell changes that can lead to cervical cancer. You should still have Cervical Screening Tests if you've had the HPV vaccine. You can talk to your healthcare provider about cervical screening and check your vaccine status at the same time.

Read more about Cervical Screening Tests on the Australian Government website.

Treating HPV

There's no cure for HPV and it'll often go away by itself without treatment. For most people, the virus will naturally clear within 1 to 2 years.

If genital warts are causing you pain or discomfort, there are different treatments you can use. These include applying a special cream or freezing the warts (cryotherapy).

Cryotherapy and laser therapy are used to treat HPV that causes changes to the cells in your cervix.

Book an STI test

Getting tested for STIs is a normal part of a healthy sex life. STI tests are quick, easy, confidential and often free.

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Last updated: April 2024