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Warts

What are warts?

Warts are common skin growths. They are not cancer. And they don’t turn into cancer. They are caused by a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV). Warts can spread to other parts of the body and to other people by contact. Most warts go away with no treatment, over a long time.

There are more than 150 types of papillomavirus, and many kinds of warts. The most common types of warts are:

  • Common warts. These grow on the fingers, elbows, knees, or the face.

  • Filiform warts. These often appear on eyelids, lips, or the face or neck.

  • Flat warts. These form in clusters on the face, backs of the hands, or legs.

  • Genital warts. These can appear on or around the genitals.

  • Periungual warts. These appear as thickened skin around the nails.

  • Plantar and palmar warts. These are warts on the soles of the feet (plantar) or the palms of the hands (palmar).

What causes warts?

Warts are caused by a type of virus called human papillomavirus (HPV). There are more than 100 types of HPV. Different types of warts are caused by different types of HPV. Warts can spread from person to person by contact.

Who is at risk for warts? 

Warts are can happen at any age. You are more at risk for warts if you have either of these:

  • Close contact with someone who has warts

  • A weak immune system

People who bite their nails are also more at risk for periungual warts.

What are the symptoms of warts?

Symptoms depend on the type of warts. The symptoms can occur a bit differently in each person. They can include:

  • Common warts. These often have a rough surface. They are grayish-yellow or brown in color. They may be on the fingers, elbows, knees, or the face.

  • Filiform warts. These are small, long, narrow growths with finger-like projections. They often appear on eyelids, lips, or the face or neck.

  • Flat warts. These are small, smooth growths. They tend to form in clusters on the face, backs of the hands, or legs.

  • Genital warts. These can appear on or around the genitals. These warts can spread and are linked to cervical, anal, and other cancers. It is important to have them treated quickly and to discuss these with sexual partners.

  • Periungual warts. These appear as thickened skin around the nails. They can cause painful splits in the skin (fissures).

  • Plantar and palmar warts. These are warts on the soles of the feet (plantar) or the palms of the hands (palmar). When you stand or walk, the pressure makes plantar warts hurt. When they form in clusters, these warts are called mosaic warts.

The symptoms of warts can look like other health conditions. See your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How are warts diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and health history. He or she will give you a physical exam. The physical exam will include closely looking at your skin. He or she may use a small blade to scrape away the top layers. There may be black dots beneath the top layers. These are tiny blood vessels that have clotted.

Your healthcare provider may advise you to see a skin doctor (dermatologist). The dermatologist may do a shave biopsy. A very small amount of the wart is shaved and sent to the lab to be examined.

How are warts treated?

Genital warts should always be treated. They can spread to other people through sexual contact. HPV is a known cause of genital or cervical cancer.

Most other warts go away in weeks or months with no treatment. Common warts can often be treated with over-the-counter products. Treatment of warts depends on:

  • How long they have been in place

  • Where they are on the body

  • What type of wart they are

  • How many of them are growing

Treatment may include one or more of the below:

  • Putting salicylic acid or other medicine such as imiquimod on the warts to help remove them

  • Freezing warts with liquid nitrogen

  • Applying an electrical current to warts (electrocautery)

  • Cutting out (excising) warts

  • Removing warts with laser surgery

  • Using immunotherapy by causing an allergic reaction

Some treatment methods may cause pain and burning in the area treated. After treatment, the warts may grow back. New warts may appear. This is common. Talk with your healthcare providers about the risks, benefits, and possible side effects of all treatments.

What are possible complications of warts?

Genital warts are linked to cervical, anal, and other types of cancer. It is important to have them treated quickly and to discuss these with sexual partners. Warts can be painful and hard to treat.

What can I do to prevent warts?

Warts can spread to other parts of the body. And they can spread to other people. They can be spread by skin to skin contact. The virus may be spread by towels or other personal items. You can help prevent warts from spreading by:

  • Not letting the warts come into contact with other parts of your body

  • Not letting the warts touch other people’s skin

  • Not sharing personal items, such as towels

  • Wearing socks or slippers if you have warts on the bottom of your feet

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Call the healthcare provider if you have skin growths that:

  • Grow quickly or bleed

  • Are painful

  • Cause problems with normal activities

Key points about warts

  • Warts are common, harmless skin growths caused by a type of virus called human papillomavirus (HPV). There are more than 100 types of papillomavirus. Different types of warts are caused by different types of papillomavirus.

  • Warts can spread to other parts of the body and to other people.

  • Genital warts should always be treated. They can spread to other people through sexual contact. And the virus may cause genital or cervical cancer.

  • Most other warts go away in weeks or months with no treatment. Common warts can often be treated with over-the-counter products.

  • After treatment, the warts may grow back. New warts may appear. This is common.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.

Online Medical Reviewer: Kevin Berman, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Louise Cunningham, RN
Date Last Reviewed: 11/1/2018
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