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. 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.

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 vagina, 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. HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, which 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. There is a vaccine that protects you from the highest risk few of the 40 sexually transmitted HPV strains, but it doesn’t protect you from all of them. Luckily, however, your body often clears the infection all on its own. And this usually happens pretty quickly — between four and 20 months. So just because you’re getting genital warts now, doesn’t mean you’ll be dealing with them for the rest of your life.

However, you are dealing with them now, so what can you do about it?

7 Ways To Help Treat Them

If you’re noticing warts, your first instinct might be to rush straight to the clinic. And while your doctor will be able to help you with your symptoms, there are also some things you can do in your very own home to help those warts go away.

Two very important notes first, though: do not do not DO NOT use over-the-counter wart removers for your genital warts. 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.

Second, as is true with most homeopathic remedies, there isn’t always that much research supporting them (by which I mean large funded studies with many subjects looking at the efficacy of a certain home remedy vs. other options). However, many practitioners have found the remedies listed below to be helpful in managing the symptoms of genital warts. So read through the explanations below, and if they sound interesting, check them out! Just make sure to tell your doctor if you’re taking any new herbs, because some of them can have interactions with other drugs you may be taking or can exacerbate other health issues you may have.

1. Thuja

Thuja is another name for western red cedar. Practitioners from the San Francisco Botanical Medicine Clinic have found that if you use this herb consistently, aka three times a day for at least a month and realistically for a few months, you can manage your genital wart symptoms. You can soak a tampon in a mix of thuja tincture (30 drops) and a cup of water and wear that, changing it two or three times a day. You can also get thuja essential oil, mix 20-30 drops into one ounce of olive oil, and apply this topically to your outer region (aka not inside your vagina) three times a day. This essential oil option also works if you have a penis. It’s important to get pure thuja — so make sure that your essential oil or tincture isn’t stretched with other herbs that might be harmful to your body!

Practitioners hypothesize that thuja works by stimulating your immune system (specifically your CD4 T-cells, for those science nerds out there), which helps your body fight against the warts. In fact, as we’ll learn, most homeopathic remedies work by supporting your immune system to kick HPV into submission.

2. Green Tea

The green tea plant is extremely high in antioxidants, which is part of what has made it useful in traditional Chinese medicine for a long, long time. The University of Maryland Medical Center has found that chemicals in this delicious tea can help treat genital warts. To help cure your warts, you don’t drink the tea. Instead, you apply green tea extract topically three times a day. A study from 2007 found that use of a topical ointment that was 15 percent green tea extract cleared up warts.

3. Reishi Mushrooms

Reishi mushrooms are another staple of traditional Chinese medicine, used to support your immune system and combat viruses — including HPV. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, if you take 150 to 300 mgs of this mushroom two to three times a day, it can help your body fight back against HPV. You can also use a tincture version.

4. Good Nutrition

In addition to putting things onto your body, you can also look at what you’re putting into it. Eating healthy supports your immune system, so it can fight the virus causing the warts. You might want to cut refined foods, like sugar and white bread, and stimulants like caffeine. You can also bump up your intake of healthful foods with lots of B vitamins and calcium (including almonds, leafy greens, beans, and whole grains) and antioxidants, which are found in lots of fruits and veggies. You can also supplement your diet with a multivitamin, fish oil pills, probiotic supplements (which is also great to keep your vagina in balance, if you have one), and grapefruit seed extract, which is antiviral in addition to being antifungal and antibacterial.

5. Apple Cider Vinegar

Apple cider vinegar (ACV) is a common remedy to remove warts all over the body. Using ACV on genital warts is more contentious — some people say it doesn’t work, but it’s by far the most popular home remedy on many homeopathic sites. Applying ACV to your genital warts with a cotton ball for 10-20 minutes twice a day can help your warts go away, at least according to many folks who use this method. Note that the ACV can feel like it’s burning — if this is happening to you, you can always cut it with more water.

6. Go To The Doctor

If these home treatments aren’t working and you’re feeling stressed or in discomfort, it’s a good idea to visit your doctor to get treatment. Again, 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.

Your doctor will help you figure out the best way to get rid of your warts, but options include getting a prescription for Imiquimod, a medicinal cream that goes by the names Aldara or Zyclara that boosts your immune system, helping your body fight off the warts. Your doctor can also destroy your wart tissue in their office with podophyllin, which is made from plant resin, or give you the take-home version, which is called podofilox. She might opt to burn them off using a chemical treatment of trichoroacetic or bichloracetic acid or through electrocautery, which removes the warts via electrical current. Or, she could freeze them off with liquid nitrogen, which is called cryotherapy.

If that’s not working, she can cut them off surgically. 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 very expensive.

7. Do Nothing

Nope, this isn’t a joke. Some research has found that it’s actually better to try to wait out the warts than seek treatment, which is something you can totally do at home. Remember that your body often clears this virus on its own, because your immune system is a badass! So if you have warts but they aren’t associated with uncomfortable symptoms like itching or pain, try leaving them alone and keeping your body healthy and strong in the meantime.

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. Unfortunately, no medication currently exists to suppress HPV so that you won’t get a wart outbreak. So what can you do to help prevent this resurgence? It comes down to ensuring that your immune system is strong so it can combat the virus. Here are a couple ways to do that.

Stress Reduction

Stress messes with your immune system, so if you’re feeling stressed you might end up with an outbreak. Of course, knowing that can be stressful in and of itself, leading to a feedback loop of stress. So it’s a good idea to manage your stress — zen out however works best for you!

Good Nutrition

This one again. In addition to the tips on healthy eating above, some studies have found that foods containing arganine might trigger HPV outbreaks. These include caffeine, alcohol, nuts, seeds, cheese, and yogurt. So if you can, go light on these types of food to minimize your risk of an outbreak.

The Bottom Line

If you have HPV, it’s truly not the end of the world. Chances are your immune system will 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.

Supporting your immune system is the way to go on this — I’ve listed out the main ways to do that, based on the literature out there. And of course, as always, you should definitely go talk to your doctor. She’ll sort you out. And then you can get back to living your fabulous life!

Images: Pexels; Giphy