Warts are benign growths that develop when the human papillomavirus (HPV) infects the top layers of skin. Warts are contagious and can spread by contact with the wart or something that touched the wart.
Warts are often skin-colored and feel rough, but they can be dark (brown or gray-black), flat, and smooth. Warts can appear on any part of the body, but are most common on hands and feet.
Warts are caused by an infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV). There are more than 100 types of HPV. Some types of HPV cause warts on your hands, and other types cause warts on your feet. Other types of HPV are more likely to cause warts on mucous membranes (in the mouth or genitals). Most types of HPV cause relatively harmless warts, like the common wart or plantar warts, while others, like those that affect the cervix, can lead to serious disease. These would be treated by an Ob/Gyn.
Warts can spread to other body parts in the same patient, or from person to person through skin-to-skin contact with the warts themselves or with surfaces carrying the wart virus, such as a towel, exercise equipment, or shower and pool floors. The virus usually spreads through breaks in the skin, such as a hangnail or a scrape. Nail biting can create these sorts of breaks in the skin, allowing warts to spread on your fingertips and around your nails.
Everyone’s immune system responds to HPV differently. Coming in contact with the virus does not definitely mean you will contract warts.
Anyone can get warts. However, some people are more prone to getting a wart virus (HPV) than others. These people are:
- Children and teens.
- People who bite their nails or pick at hangnails.
- People with a weakened immune system (the body’s defense system).
It is important not to pick at or shave over warts as this can spread the virus.
There are a few different types of warts. The type is determined by where it grows on the body and what it looks like. The following describes the symptoms of some of the different types:
- Common Warts--are warts that usually appear on hands or face. They appear as small, rough bumps that are flesh-colored, white, pink, or tan. They can be sprinkled with black pinpoints, which are small, clotted blood vessels. These warts can spread from the hands to the face through touching.
- Plantar Warts--are warts that grow most commonly on the surface of the feet. These warts can grow in clusters and are often flat or grow inward. These warts can hurt while walking.
- Flat Warts--can occur anywhere. Children usually get them on the face. Men get these most often in the beard area, and women tend to get them on their legs. These warts are smaller and smoother than other warts, and they tend to grow in large numbers — 20 to 100 at a time.
- Filiform Warts--are warts that look like long threads or thin fingers that stick out. These often grow on the face: around the mouth, eyes, and nose. They also grow very quickly.
In most cases, your doctor can diagnose a common wart with one or more of these techniques:
- Physical exam of the wart.
- Scraping off the top layer of the wart to check for signs of dark, pinpoint dots — clotted blood vessels — which are common with warts.
- Removing a small section of the wart (shave biopsy) and sending it to a laboratory for analysis to rule out other types of skin growths.
When warts do not respond to over-the-counter treatments, the following treatments can be performed in the office:
- Cryotherapy: Freezes the wart and kills the cells infected by HPV using liquid nitrogen.
- Cantharidin: Derived from the blister beetle, this lacquer can be applied painlessly to warts in the office. It intentionally causes a blister to form in the infected skin for its removal. The lacquer should be washed off after the advised amount of time. Several treatments may be necessary.
- Other prescription creams or injected medication can be used to increase the immune system’s response to the wart virus.
- Salicylic Acid Preparations: Dissolve a skin protein (keratin) causing the infected cells to peel off. It comes in gels, pads, drops and plasters, with stronger preparations available with a prescription.
If self-treatments don't work after a period of about 4 to 12 weeks, contact our dermatologists. We'll assess your warts and recommend the best option.
Always contact the dermatologist if a wart is causing pain, changes in color or appearance and for all genital warts.
How Do You Get Warts?
Warts occur when the human papilloma virus comes in contact with your skin and causes an infection. Warts are more likely to develop on broken skin, such as picked hangnails or areas nicked by shaving, because the virus is able to enter the top layer of skin through scratches or cuts.
While dermatologists still don’t know why, certain people are more likely to get warts than others. Additionally, children get warts much more often than adults, because their immune systems have not yet built up their defenses against the numerous types of human papillomavirus that exist.
Are Warts Contagious?
Unfortunately, yes. You can get warts from touching a wart on someone else’s body, or by coming in contact with surfaces that touched someone’s warts, such as towels or bathmats.
Can I Spread Warts From One Part of My Body to Another?
Yes, you can. For this reason, it is important not to pick at your warts and to wash your hands promptly and thoroughly any time you touch one of your warts. If you have warts in an area where you shave, keep in mind that shaving over the wart could transfer the virus to the razor and then spread it to other areas of your body.
Why Do Some Warts Have Black Dots in Them?
If you look closely, many skin warts contain a number of black dots that resemble little seeds. These specks are visible blood vessels that are supplying the wart with nutrients and oxygen.
Can Warts Be Prevented?
Though skin warts can’t be prevented, there are a number of precautionary measures you can take to minimize your risk of acquiring warts. One of the most important things you can do is to wash your hands regularly. Also, try to keep your skin healthy, moisturized, and free of cuts. If you bite your fingernails or cuticles, do your best to stop. Biting nails creates an opening for virus to enter your skin. Be careful to use clean, fresh towels at the gym or in other public locations, and always wear rubber-soled flip-flops or sandals in public locker rooms and showers.
Will Warts Go Away On Their Own?
Some warts will go away without treatment, others will not. Even those warts that eventually go away can take months, or even years, to disappear. Also, keep in mind that any wart can be a “mother” wart that spreads to other parts of your body. Most dermatologists say it is best to treat warts, either at home or in the doctor’s office, as soon as they appear.
When Do You Need to See a Doctor About Warts?
For common skin warts, many dermatologists agree that it’s perfectly fine to try over-the-counter wart treatments for a couple of months. If your warts don’t go away during that time, or if they get worse, it may be wise to seek medical attention. Dermatologists have a variety of wart treatments and removal techniques that are stronger and may work faster than commercially available products.
Also, remember that the faster you remove the wart, the less likely it will spread and cause additional warts.
What Are Some of the Most Effective At-Home Wart Treatments?
While at-home wart treatments can take weeks or months to work, salicylic acid plasters or solutions that peel away the wart can be very effective when used correctly. Be sure to follow directions carefully. Use a dedicated pumice stone, emery board, or nail file to remove dead skin from the wart the day after each application of wart remover. Don’t use the file for any other purpose; it could spread the virus to another part of your body. And throw it away when the wart is gone.
People also use duct tape, clear nail polish, or liquid band-aid, although these treatments probably do not work any better than a placebo. However, they can decrease the risk of spreading warts. Use duct tape like you would a wart-remover patch. Put a small strip over the wart and leave it in place for about six days. At the end of the sixth day, remove the tape, soak the wart in water and then gently debride it with a pumice stone, emery board, or nail file. Repeat the process as often as it takes to remove the wart.
How Will a Doctor Treat My Warts?
It depends. Freezing the wart with liquid nitrogen is a fast and effective treatment that does not cause too much discomfort.
Doctors may also use a chemical called cantharidin on the wart, which causes a blister to form beneath the growth. When the skin on the top of the blister separates, it contains part of the wart and can be removed.
Other options include surgical removal of the wart and the injection or application of certain drugs that strengthen your immune system’s response to the wart.