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Imiquimod: Skin cancer treatment FAQs

Will imiquimod cure me?

Many patients see actinic keratoses (AKs) and the earliest form of basal cell cancer clear. This medicine also destroys genital warts.

Some patients, however, continue to get new AKs, skin cancers, or genital warts. Imiquimod can destroy a tumor or wart — but not its cause.

What causes AKs and skin cancers: AKs and skin cancers develop in people who use tanning beds, sunlamps, or do not protect their skin from the sun. Tanning beds, sunlamps, and the sun damage our skin. When the damage is severe, new AKs and skin cancers can form. Protecting your skin from the sun and not using tanning beds or sunlamps helps to reduce the chance of new getting AKs and skin cancers.

How do I use imiquimod?

You apply the cream to the AKs, skin cancer, or warts. Most patients apply imiquimod before bedtime. You must leave imiquimod on your skin for several hours and then wash it off.

Be sure to follow the directions carefully. Using more than directed can cause unwanted skin reactions. If you use the medicine less often than prescribed, it may not work.

How long will I have to use imiquimod?

This varies from patient to patient. Your dermatologist will tell you how long you will need to use the cream and how often to apply it. The following table shows the typical treatment plan for each of the skin diseases that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved imiquimod to treat.

How to use imiquimod

Skin disease
How often to apply
How long to keep it on your skin
How long to use
AKs 2 days a week 8 hours 16 weeks
Early basal cell carcinoma 5 days a week 8 hours 6 weeks, continuing to use even if tumor disappears
Genital warts 3 days a week 6 to 10 hours Maximum of 16 weeks

How does imiquimod work?

Imiquimod stimulates the patient’s immune system. This helps the patient’s body to destroy the genital warts, AKs, or cancer cells.

When using imiquimod to treat AKs or skin cancer, your skin should react. You may have redness, swelling, burning, itching, and tenderness. As the skin starts to heal, you will see scabs and flaking. These reactions indicate that the medicine is working. When a patient does not have a reaction, imiquimod tends to be ineffective.

Imiquimod treatment

A patient’s skin reacts while using imiquimod to treat early basal cell cancer (left). The same patient, 8 months later, cleared of the skin cancer (right).

A before and after photo of a patient's skin reacting to imiquimod to treat early basal cell carcinoma skin cancer on her chin.

Do I need to take any precautions while using imiquimod?

When using this medicine, you should:

  1. Keep all appointments with your dermatologist. These follow-up visits allow your dermatologist to determine if the medicine is working for you. You should never use your own judgment to determine this. Your dermatologist considers many factors, not only whether your skin is clearing. If the medicine does not work, you may need to use a different treatment to prevent the disease from progressing.

  2. Protect your skin from the sun. This helps reduce your risk of developing new AKs and skin cancers. To do this, you should seek shade when outdoors; wear long sleeves, pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses; and use a sunscreen. Be sure to use sunscreen that is broad-spectrum, SPF30+, and water-resistant.

  3. Avoid sexual activity while the medicine is on your skin. Even if you use a condom or other type of protection, this may not prevent the imiquimod from spreading to your partner.

What are possible side effects?

It is normal to have a skin reaction. This tells you that the medicine is working. You may experience redness, swelling, and itching. If the intensity becomes too much, you should contact your dermatologist. Your dermatologist can adjust the dose or frequency to make you more comfortable.

If you experience any of the following side effects, you should contact your dermatologist:

  • Intense burning and itching

  • Sores that ooze

  • Flu-like symptoms

  • Diarrhea

  • Headache

  • Upper respiratory tract infection

  • Back pain

If you are treating AKs, you may see more AKs on your skin. This happens frequently and should not worry you.

Related AAD resources

Images used with permission of Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology J Am Acad Dermatol. 2002; 47:S240-8.