Warts are benign
(not cancerous) skin growths that appear when a virus infects the top layer of the skin. Viruses that cause warts are called human papillomaviruses (HPV) and are contagious. You are more likely to get one of these viruses if you cut or damage your skin in some way. Warts can spread by contact with the wart or something that touched the wart. They can grow on any part of your body. Often they are skin-colored and feel rough, but they can be dark (brown or gray-black), flat, and smooth.
There are a few different types of warts. The type is determined by where it grows on the body and what it looks like.
Who gets warts?
Anyone can get warts. Some people are more prone to getting a wart virus (HPV) than others. Commonly this includes children and teens, people who bite their nails or pick at hangnails and people with a weakened immune system (the body’s defense system). In children, warts often go away without treatment. A dermatologist should treat warts that hurt, bother the child, or quickly multiply.
What causes warts?
Viruses called human papillomaviruses (HPV) cause warts. It is easier to catch a virus that causes warts when you have a cut or scrape on your skin. This explains why so many children get warts. Warts also are more common on parts of the body that people shave such as the beard area in men and the legs in women. You can spread warts from one place on your body to another. Warts can also spread from person to person from touching a wart on someone’s body. Some people get a wart after touching something that another person’s wart touched, such as a towel. It often takes a few months for warts to grow large enough to see.
How do dermatologists diagnose warts?
A dermatologist can tell whether you have a wart by looking at it. In rare cases, a dermatologist may need to perform a skin biopsy to be certain. If a dermatologist needs to perform a biopsy, the doctor will remove the wart and send it to a lab. At the lab, a small piece of the wart will be looked at under a microscope. A biopsy is a safe and quick procedure for a dermatologist to perform.
How do dermatologists treat warts?
Warts often go away without treatment. This is especially true when children get warts. In adults, warts may not disappear as easily or as quickly as they do in children. Although most warts are harmless, dermatologists do treat them. You should see a dermatologist if you cannot get rid of the warts, the warts hurt, or you have multiple warts. Dermatologists have many treatments for warts and the treatment used depends on the patient’s age and health as well as the type of wart.
For common warts in adults and older children, cryotherapy (freezing) is the most common treatment. It can cause dark or light spots afterward, more commonly in people who have dark skin. It is common to need repeat treatments. Also, a dermatologist may treat a wart in the office by “painting” it with cantharidin. Cantharidin causes a blister to form under or around the wart. This enhanced irritation will help your body overcome the wart virus. Electrosurgery (burning) is a treatment for common warts, filiform warts, and foot warts. Curettage involves scraping off (curetting) the wart with a sharp knife or small, spoon-shaped tool. These two procedures often are used together. The dermatologist may remove the wart by scraping it off before or after electrosurgery. Also, the doctor may cut out the wart (excision).
If the warts are hard-to-treat, the dermatologist may use one or more alternate treatments. Some of these are direct injections of medication or immune stimulants into the wart. In addition, there are other topical medications that can be prescribed or obtained from a pharmacy.
There is no cure for the wart virus. This means that warts can return at the same site or appear in a new spot. Sometimes, it seems that new warts appear as fast as old ones go away. This happens when the old warts shed virus cells into the skin before the warts are treated. This allows new warts to grow around the first warts. The best way to prevent this is to have your dermatologist treat new warts as soon as they appear.
You can get some wart remedies without a prescription and treat the warts yourself. This may be enough to get rid of the warts. The only problem with self-treatment is that you might mistake another kind of skin growth for a wart. Some skin cancers look like warts.
You should see a dermatologist when you have suspicion that the growth is not a wart; a wart is on your face or genitals; you have many warts; the warts hurt, itch, burn, or bleed; you have a weakened immune system; or you have diabetes. Never try to remove any wart on your foot if you have diabetes. If you cut or burn your skin, it could cause lasting damage to the nerves in your feet.
You can use the following at home:
Salicylic acid: You can treat warts at home by applying salicylic acid. This medicine is available without a prescription. It comes in different forms — a gel, liquid, or plaster (pad). You should apply salicylic acid to the wart every day. Before applying the salicylic acid, be sure to soak the wart in warm water. Salicylic acid is rarely painful. If the wart or the skin around the wart starts to feel sore, you should stop treatment for a short time. It can take many weeks of treatment to have good results — even when you do not stop treatment.
Other home remedies: Some home remedies are harmless, such as covering warts with duct tape. Changing the tape every few days might peel away layers of the wart. Studies conflict, though, on whether duct tape really gets rid of warts. Many people think certain folk remedies and hypnosis get rid of warts. Since warts may go away without treatment, it’s hard to know whether a folk remedy worked or the warts just went away.
Ask your dermatologist if you are unsure about the best way to treat a wart.
To prevent warts from spreading, do not pick or scratch at warts; wear flip-flops or pool shoes in public showers, locker rooms, and pool areas; do not touch someone’s wart; and keep foot warts dry, as moisture tends to allow warts to spread.