How To Treat Genital Warts & Prevent Them From Coming Back
We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful sexual health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions remain anonymous. This week’s topic: how to treat and prevent genital warts.
Q: I got diagnosed with HPV a bit ago but just got my first bout of warts. I’m wondering what to do — do they go away on their own? Is there something I can do at home to take care of them, like something over the counter or a home remedy that makes genital warts disappear? My doctor said if I got any warts to come back to the clinic and she’d burn them off, which kinda freaks me out. I’d rather not go to the doctor if I can do this myself.
A: Genital warts are a fact of life for many sexually active humans. Lots of people deal with these warts which, as their name suggests, like to live in the moist genital regions of your body.
"Genital warts are caused by the HPV virus, which is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact," Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, MD and family physician at One Medical. This skin-to-skin contact can include the genitals, the anus and also the mouth."
If you get one of the strains of human papillomavirus (HPV for short) that causes warts, you can get outbreaks of skin growths that are often referred to as “cauliflower-like” in your genital area (for those of us who need a visual). This doesn’t happen all the time — while the virus is living inside you all the time, you only get warts when it comes up to the top layer of your skin. There, it causes rapid growth of keratin, which is a hard protein you always have in your skin.
According to Planned Parenthood, some people only get genital warts once, and then will never get them again. Other people might have them on a recurring basis.
Sometimes, these warts are just annoying because they are unwanted skin growths in a place you really don't want them, but other times, they are also uncomfortable and can even be painful. If you see or feel something that seems like a wart in your genital region (aka on, around or in your vulva, on or around your penis, or on or around your anus) go to your doctor to get it checked out. Once you're diagnosed with a wart-causing strain of HPV, you can work to ensure that you don't give it to any of your sexual partners. Since HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, that means that condoms can't 100 percent protect your lovers, but they can help a bunch.
Can You Cure Them?
An important thing to know about HPV is that it’s currently incurable, but as Bhuyan says, there are treatments to eliminate genital warts. "For most people who undergo this treatment, the warts will go away and not return," Bhuyan says. "However, in some instances, the HPV virus can linger in your body and return unexpectedly."
So if you're dealing with them now, what can you do about it?
How To Help Treat Them
While genital warts can go away on their own, sometimes they may get larger or grow in number. HPV can’t be cured with medicine — but there are things you can do to help your warts go away — because remember, the warts are just the visual manifestation of the viral infection.
If you’re noticing what you think are genital warts, you'll want to make sure the lesions really are actually genital warts.
"They could also be a different STI or other skin lesions," Bhuyan says. "Once this diagnosis is confirmed, your doctor can prescribe treatment. While you have lesions, it's important to avoid sexual intercourse (any contact with another person's genitals, anus, or mouth) as the warts can be contagious."
Bhuyan says you'll also want to stay away from over-the-counter wart removers. They are designed for use on other parts of your body, not the very tender genital skin. They can cause you to feel way worse than when you started, so steer clear.
As for treatments, you've got options, so be sure to talk to your doctor about which one is right for you. "There are two main treatment categories for genital warts: applying a topical medication and in-office procedures," Bhuyan says. "Topical medications include imiquimod, which modifies our immune response, or podophyllin, which is a plant-based resin."
Your doctor might opt to take them off by freezing or burning them. "For quicker treatment, you can also have a primary care provider apply liquid nitrogen to freeze the wart off," Bhuyan says. "The warts can also be removed via electrocautery (burning) or simply cutting them off."
If that’s not working, Mayo Clinic says they can be cut off surgically, too. You usually get either a local or general anesthesia when this happens, so you won’t feel it when it’s happening. Finally, your doctor can also remove the warts with lasers. This is usually a last resort for if nothing else is working, because the side effects can include scarring, whereas all other options usually just result in some discomfort. It can also be expensive.
How To Keep Them From Coming Back
Just getting rid of a wart or cluster of warts doesn’t always solve your problem, because the virus that caused the warts to begin with is still in your body. Research has found that anywhere from 30 to 70 percent of people who get their warts treated medically will get them again in around six months. While genital warts can be treated, unfortunately no medication currently exists to suppress HPV so that you won’t get another wart outbreak.
So what can you do to help prevent this resurgence? Some suggest boosting your immune system. According to dermatologist Dr. Keira L. Barr, MD and founder of Resilient Health Institute, boosting your immune function could help minimize recurrence.
Barr tells Bustle to try foods that are high in vitamin C, probiotic foods, like fermented vegetables, green leafy vegetables, and high-selenium foods to get that immune system boost.
The Bottom Line
If you have HPV, it’s truly not the end of the world — and your immune system could clear it on its own like the badass it is. But in the meantime, if you get genital warts, you can experience some discomfort or embarrassment. That’s all totally natural, and it’s understandable you might want to do something about them.
Of course, as always, you should definitely go talk to your doctor. They'll sort you out. And then you can get back to living your fabulous life!
This piece was originally published on May 18, 2016. It was updated on July 3, 2019.