Genital warts and human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common skin to skin infection that is transmitted through sexual contact.
- Some types of HPV affect the genital area. Most people have no symptoms, but the virus can still be passed on.
- HPV causes genital warts in some people and different types of HPV can cause cell changes that can lead to cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth and throat.
- The best way to protect yourself and others against HPV is to be vaccinated.
Genital warts are fleshy growths or lumps found around the genitals and anus. They are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV, most commonly types 6 and 11). HPV can affect anyone and 9 out of 10 people have HPV at some time in their lives. Most HPV infections are harmless, do not cause any symptoms, and clear up without treatment.
HPV infection is very common. Sometimes HPV infection causes visible warts within a few weeks of infection, or they may take months to appear. However, many people who have been exposed to the virus do not develop visible warts because their immune system keeps the virus under control. Warts are harder to treat in a person with an impaired immune system, such as someone living with HIV. Some warts may be difficult to see as they occur inside the vagina, cervix, or anus and this could cause unusual itching, pain or bleeding.
There is no simple test for HPV. If you develop visible genital warts this does not necessarily mean you were infected recently as the infection may have occurred months or even years ago.
For people with a cervix, the Cervical Screening Test detects some types of HPV and it also looks for early changes in the cells of the cervix if HPV is detected. Doing the Cervical Screening Test every 5 years is a great way to protect against cervical cancer by finding early changes so they can be monitored and treated, if needed.
If you think you have genital warts, it is recommended that you have a sexual health check. In most cases, the presence of warts can be confirmed by visual inspection of the genital area. There is no treatment that gets rid of HPV but in most people, the virus is naturally cleared within 1-2 years.
Genital warts can be easily treated by freezing the warts, using a liquid treatment or cream, or occasionally laser treatment to remove the warts. Warts can grow rapidly during pregnancy and some treatments are not recommended at this time, so it is important to consult a healthcare professional. Lesions often go away after birth as the immune system returns to pre-pregnant function.
Changes in the cells of the cervix caused by HPV infection can also be treated.
HPV can live in the vagina, vulva, cervix, anus or penis and sometimes the mouth or throat. It is spread through direct skin to skin contact and contact with genital secretions through tiny breaks in the skin. This occurs most commonly through sexual contact and can occur even when there are no visible warts. This explains why genital HPV infection spreads easily among sexually active people.
The risk of HPV transmission from mother to baby during labour and birth is extremely low.
Warts that occur elsewhere on the body are caused by different types of HPV. Contact with these warts does not cause genital warts.
You can get an STI such as genital warts by having sex without a condom and close skin to skin contact.
If you're having sex without a condom, the risk of getting an STI is higher:
- if you have casual partners
- the more casual partners you have
- if you have partners who have had sex in some countries outside Australia (especially if they haven't used a condom in the past)
- if you have partners who have injected drugs
- for men who have anal sex with other men.
Some people will feel upset about having genital warts. Often people feel anger toward their sexual partner, even though it is usually not possible to know exactly when or from whom the HPV was contracted. The long period where HPV may be present without symptoms, just as with herpes simplex virus, means that the appearance of warts in only one partner does not necessarily imply recent sexual contact with someone else.
Some types of HPV infection can be prevented by vaccination. The HPV vaccine protects against nine types of HPV that are the most common causes of cervical cancer and genital warts in Australia.
Immunisation against HPV is recommended as part of the Queensland School Immunisation Program. The National Immunisation Program provides funded HPV vaccine for all Year 7 students, as well as catch up-vaccine for people up to and including the age of 25 years.
If vaccination is provided through a GP or other primary care provider instead of at school, the vaccine will be funded but there may be a consultation fee.
The benefits of HPV vaccination are greatest when it is given before exposure to the virus.
HPV vaccination is not routinely recommended for people 26 years and older because HPV infection generally occurs soon after sexual activity commences. Vaccine effectiveness is reduced if there has been a prior infection. However, some people 26 years and over may benefit from being vaccinated and protected against HPV types they have not been exposed to yet. You should get advice related to your individual circumstances.
The vaccine should not be given during pregnancy but is safe for breastfeeding women.
All vaccinations, including HPV vaccination, are recorded on the Australian Immunisation Register.
Using condoms and/or dental dams is still recommended to reduce transmission of the virus and protect against HPV types not included in available vaccines. Practise safe sex, talk to your partners about sexual health, and make sure you get enthusiastic consent. Condoms are the best way to prevent STIs and using them with a water-based lubricant will be more pleasurable and reduce the risk of the condom breaking. Using condoms will reduce the spread of HPV but will not completely remove the risk as other areas of skin where virus is present may not be covered.
It is not possible to predict who will develop genital warts after HPV infection. Treatment for genital warts is cosmetic rather than curative and for people with HIV, warts can have a poor response to treatment, require longer treatment cycles and are more likely to recur.
For most people the body's natural immune response will clear the virus
over time. Cancer (penile, anal, oropharyngeal, vulvar, vaginal, cervical) is
possible for some HPV types and unusual growths should be investigated by biopsy
and/or referral to a specialist.
- Cervical screening
- National Cervical Cancer Screening Program
- School Immunisation Program
- For short animations about common STIs, see Queensland Health's YouTube channel Your Sexual Health.
- For comprehensive safe sex, STIs, testing and treatment information for young adults see Stop the Rise of STIs.
- For videos and resources developed with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities see Young Deadly Free.
- For information on genital warts and HPV in Arabic, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Thai, or Vietnamese go to the StaySTIFree website. Other translated resources about STIs are available from the Ethnic Communities Council of Queensland
Get qualified health advice 24/7 for the cost of a local call 13 HEALTH (13 43 25 84).
This factsheet provides general information and is not intended to replace the need to see a health professional or have a sexual health check. For more information on genital warts or sexual health please talk to a healthcare provider. A doctor, nurse or health worker can assist with:
- providing appropriate tests, treatment and information about how to prevent STIs
- helping people to ensure that their sexual partners get tested and treated.