Symptoms of human papillomavirus (HPV) may include warts on the hands, feet, genitals, or elsewhere on the body. Although most warts will go away over time without treatment, people may want to remove them for many reasons. In these cases, the treatment options range from medications to surgical removal, depending on the location and type of wart.
Treatment for HPV
There are no treatments for human papillomavirus (HPV) itself, but there are ways to treat the symptoms it causes. Certain types of HPV may cause genital warts, while others may cause non-genital warts on the hands, feet, and other body parts.
In most cases, warts don’t require medical attention because they often go away on their own within a few weeks or months, although it can sometimes take up to years. Nonetheless, individuals may want to remove their warts because they are bothersome, do not go away quickly, or for other reasons.
Thankfully, there are several treatment options for warts, depending on the location and type of wart. While people can treat most non-genital warts at home, other types, such as genital warts, require treatment by a healthcare provider. But regardless of the method, no treatment is 100% effective, so most options require multiple applications to remove all warts.
Self-treatment for warts
Treatment at home without a prescription is an option for warts on the skin, especially warts on the hands. Salicylic acid, an over-the-counter medication sold under several brand names in various products, is the standard home treatment. Because of its low cost and effectiveness, salicylic acid is typically the first treatment used for most types of non-genital warts.
Salicylic acid is a topical medication that removes warts by softening the skin layers that make up the wart. Once softened, the skin can be rubbed off. This process is slow, requiring multiple applications for up to 12 weeks. Although salicylic acid generally has no side effects other than minor skin irritation, individuals must use it with care because it can remove healthy skin.
Because it can also lighten and darken the skin, salicylic acid treatment is not recommended for warts on the face. Additionally, individuals with genital warts should not use over-the-counter medications designed to remove warts on the skin. Genital warts require treatment by a healthcare provider with various medical or surgical techniques, including the following.
Prescription medications for warts
Medications that can be applied directly to warts at home with a prescription are available to treat genital warts. These medications require weeks of treatment and include the following:
- Imiquimod: This topical cream eliminates genital warts by stimulating the body’s immune system to fight HPV.
- Podofilox: This topical medication, available in liquid or gel form, destroys the wart.
- Sinecatechins: This topical ointment is made with substances found in green tea leaves.
All topical treatments may cause pain and irritation in the surrounding area where applied.
Cryotherapy for warts
If warts do not respond to treatment with medication, a healthcare provider may recommend cryotherapy, a type of surgery that requires freezing warts with liquid nitrogen. Cryotherapy is a simple procedure done in a healthcare office. It involves applying a small amount of liquid nitrogen to the wart for 10 to20 seconds. The extreme cold destroys the wart.
Genital and non-genital warts can be removed by cryotherapy. The benefits of this treatment include a short preparation time, minimal wound care, and a low risk of infection.
Other surgical options for warts
If other options are unsuccessful, warts may be removed with the following treatments:
- Laser surgery: This treatment involves burning the wart with a beam of light.
- Electrosurgery: This method involves burning the wart with an electric current.
- Conventional surgery: Rarely, a wart may be removed by cutting it out.
Surgical options carry the risk of bleeding, infection, and scarring.
Does treatment eliminate HPV?
Currently available treatments can destroy warts but do not directly kill HPV. However, the body’s immune system can fight off the virus over time, causing warts to go away on their own. Most people with healthy immune systems eliminate HPV infection within one to two years.
Can warts reappear?
Yes, warts can reappear after successful removal with any treatment option because the virus remains in the body. They can also reappear at any time after resolving on their own.
Can HPV vaccines treat warts?
No, HPV vaccines cannot treat existing warts but can prevent infection with HPV types that a person does not already have. There are three HPV vaccines available that are effective against several HPV types most likely to cause genital warts or cervical cancer.
Most warts caused by HPV eventually disappear on their own. Though not all warts require treatment, there are several options for removing them: repeated treatment with topical medication, freezing (cryotherapy), laser surgery, electrosurgery, or conventional surgery. Some warts, such as non-genital warts on the hands, can be treated at home with a topical over-the-counter medication. Others, such as genital warts, require prescription medication.
Even with successful treatment, warts often reappear after being removed.
Consult a healthcare provider if there are no signs of improvement after home treatment for non-genital warts. Healthcare providers have many ways of treating genital and non-genital warts, including stronger topical medications than those available over the counter.
- Most warts go away on their own within a few weeks or months, though they may reappear with or without treatment as HPV remains in the body.
- There are several treatment options for warts, including medications that can be applied directly to the wart. Some warts can be treated with over-the-counter medicines. Genital warts require treatment by a healthcare provider.
- If medications are unsuccessful, cryotherapy (freezing the wart with liquid nitrogen), laser surgery, or conventional surgery are other options.
- Most treatment methods require multiple applications to remove all warts.
Karnes, J.B., Usatine, R.P. (2014). American Family Physician. Management of External Genital Warts.
King-fan Loo, S., Yuk-ming Tang, W. (2014). British Medical Journal – Clinical Evidence. Warts (non-genital).