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What Are Warts?

Warts are tiny skin infections caused by viruses of the human papilloma virus (HPV) family. Although kids get warts most often, teens and adults can get them, too. Sometimes warts are sexually transmitted and appear in the genital area, but most warts affect the fingers, hands, and feet.

Some people appear to be more susceptible to warts than others. In fact, some people never get them. Doctors aren’t really sure why this is and think it may be that some people’s immune systems make them less likely to get the viruses that cause warts.

These viruses are passed from person to person by close physical contact. Having a tiny scratch or cut can make someone more vulnerable to getting warts.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms?

If you find a small, hard bump on your skin that has a rough surface similar to that of cauliflower, it’s probably a wart. Warts can look pink, white, or brown, and can contain tiny spots inside that look like black specks. Warts can affect any part of the skin, but are most often found on the extremities — fingers, hands, and feet.

Warts are usually painless, except for those on the soles of the feet. These are called plantar warts, and if you have one it can feel like walking on a small pebble. Warts on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet may appear level rather than raised.

Sometimes warts can itch or bleed. They may also become infected with bacteria (from scratching or picking) and become red, hot, or tender.

Can I Prevent Warts?

There is no way to prevent warts, but it’s always a good idea to wash your skin regularly and well. If you cut or scratch your skin, be sure to use soap and water because open wounds are more susceptible to warts and other infections.

It’s also a good idea to wear waterproof sandals or flip-flops in public showers, locker rooms, and around public pools (this also can help protect against other infections, like athlete’s foot).

If you do have a wart, don’t rub, scratch, or pick at it or you may spread the virus to another part of your body or cause the wart to become infected.

How Long Before Symptoms Appear?

The length of time between when someone is exposed to an HPV virus and a wart appears varies, but warts can grow very slowly and may take many months to develop.

How Long Do Warts Last?

Warts are different in different people. In time, many warts disappear on their own.

With treatment, warts can usually be removed within a few weeks, but they may come back if the virus causing them stays in the skin.

When Should I Call a Doctor?

Although many warts disappear on their own with time, it’s a good idea to show your wart to a doctor, who can recommend a treatment method if you need one.

If you discover a wart on your face or on your genital area, call your doctor. He or she can determine the best treatment for those areas, which are very sensitive.

How Are Warts Treated?

Warts can be treated in various ways:

  • Over-the-counter medications contain acids that are applied to the wart. The acids are peeling agents that remove the dead skin cells of the wart and cause the wart to eventually fall off. OTC treatments shouldn’t be used on the face or genitals without consulting a doctor first as some of them may damage the skin.
  • Cryosurgery (pronounced: kry-o-SUR-juh-ree) is where a doctor freezes the wart with liquid nitrogen. This treatment is usually done in the doctor’s office.
  • Laser surgery may be used for warts that are hard to remove.

Within a few days after treatment by a doctor, a small wart will usually fall off, although you may need more than one treatment. Treatment may take longer for larger warts. Over-the-counter treatments may take longer than the doctor’s office treatments, but can be used as initial treatment on the hands or feet. Your doctor may also tell you to use OTC treatments after you’ve had an in-office procedure.

What Can I Do to Help Myself Feel Better?

If you have a simple wart on a finger or toe, you can try to remove it with an over-the-counter medication. These include liquids or pads containing medication that work by chemically removing the skin affected by the wart virus.

Because these are strong chemicals, you should follow the directions and use them with care to prevent removing healthy skin. Keep the chemicals away from your eyes, and wash your hands thoroughly after treating the area.

Reviewed by: Patrice Hyde, MD
Date reviewed: January 2014