Warts are benign tumors in the outer skin layer caused by the human papilloma virus. They can occur anywhere on the body, but they look different depending on where they grow. Warts typically appear on fingers and tops of hands, where they protrude as dry growths with a horny surface. On pressure areas such as the palms and soles, they grow inward. One of the most painful types is the plantar wart, a light-colored, flat growth on the sole of the foot that extends below the surface of the skin.
Ordinary warts are slightly contagious; they spread most commonly from one location to anotherfor example, from finger to fingeron an infected person, rather than from person to person. The exceptions are genital warts and warts that appear around the anal area. These are highly contagious and may contribute to the development of penile and cervical cancers. Warts on the larynx can also be dangerous. These three types of warts always require medical attention.
Warts, which afflict 7 to 10 percent of the population, never spread from one species to another: that old story about toads causing warts in people is just a myth. (The bumps on toads and frogs, though wartlike in appearance, are unrelated to actual warts, which are found only on humans.) Warts are most common among children and young adults, as well as people with weakened immune systems, such as those infected with HIV. Of the several million people who seek treatment for warts each year, about 70 percent are under 40 years of age.
Symptoms of Warts
- A benign, small growth on the skin, typically on the hands.
- May be pale or dark, rough or smooth, raised or flat. Warts seldom bleed or itch.
- Usually painless, although plantar warts, located on the soles of the feet, can be quite painful.
What Causes Warts?
Warts are caused by strains of human papilloma virus that can enter the skin through tiny breaks, cuts, or scratches and can be transmitted by direct physical contact with another person. Plantar warts may be spread through swimming pools or showers.
What If You Do Nothing?
Nongenital warts are harmless, and the best treatment for them may be no treatment at all. Up to 80 percent of nongenital warts disappear by themselves in one or two years (typically two years, at least in children). Genital and anal warts, on the other hand, must be treated. And because plantar warts can make walking uncomfortable, they, too, may need medical attention.
Unfortunately, warts that have gone away (a process known as spontaneous remission) can also return just as mysteriously.
Home Remedies for Warts
If you think you have a wart, it’s a good idea to see a doctor for evaluation, since it might be another condition, such as a skin cancer. If it is a wart, deciding whether to treat it comes down to whether it interferes with your walking or running, or whether it is causing social problems. If not, then it may be best to leave the wart alone. Never cut a wart yourself, as there is a risk of bleeding, infection, and scarring.
The fact that most warts disappear on their own has bred all kinds of legends and given credence to hundreds of home remedies. Huckleberry Finn recommended handling dead cats as a treatment for warts, and Tom Sawyer believed that spunk-water (stagnant water in an old tree stump) could cure warts, at least if you approached the stump backward at midnight and recited the proper spell. Here are some remedies that have proven to be somewhat more effective.
- Tape it. This is an inexpensive, noninvasive, and popular remedy. Wrap the area in several layers of waterproof tape and leave it on for one week. Repeat the treatment. Sometimes the wart goes away.
- Try a wart removal preparation. Drugstores sell salicylic acid products for the removal of warts. If you decide to try one of these be sure to protect the surrounding skin, since it can get burned. Do not use these remedies on facial, genital, or anal warts.
- Paint on the low-strength salicylic acid recommended by your physician or pharmacist. The medication may take weeks to produce favorable results.
- Don’t cut or scratch. Warts can easily spread if cut or scratched.
- Wear shower shoes. Plantar warts may be spread through moist environments like swimming pools or showers. Sandals or shower shoes at poolside or in locker rooms can keep you from spreading or exposing yourself to such a wart.
- Change shaving tools. An electric razor or depilatory may be used instead of a conventional razor. This will prevent the skin nicks that can easily promote the spread of warts on the legs and face.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
It’s a good idea to have your doctor confirm that a wartlike growth is indeed a wart, especially if you are over 45. New skin growths should be diagnosed to rule out skin cancer.
Also contact your physician if warts develop on the sole of the foot and cause walking difficulties, or if they appear on the face or genitals. Genital warts, transmitted by sexual contact, are associated with the development of cervical cancer and should never be ignored by you or your sexual partner. If you have any type of growth in the genital area, see your doctor right away.
What Your Doctor Will Do
If it is a wart, the safest way to remove it is to have it done by a doctor. There are various methods, including electricity, laser treatment, surgery with a scalpel, and freezing. Cryotherapy (freezing) with liquid nitrogen is generally preferred. There are some prescription medications available for treating external genital warts. Plantar warts, which mainly lie below the skin surface, often require the use of local anesthesia for removal.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media