a doctor treating a foot wart
Plantar warts are found on the soles of the feet.

How to Treat Warts

Warts are harmless skin growths caused by certain strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV). They are most commonly found on the hands, feet and face, and typically have a raised, rough surface. However, warts may also be smooth and flat, particularly those that develop on the face.

Though benign, warts can take a few years to disappear without treatment. They can also spread to other parts of the body (especially if you pick or scratch at them). This is why its important to understand how to treat warts.

If warts are numerous, widespread or otherwise unsightly, they can cause a lot of emotional distress. Fortunately, there are several effective remedies for wart removal. Some of these may be done at home, while others will require a short appointment with a dermatologist or doctor.

Identifying Common Warts

Warts are small skin growths that are typically flesh colored and raised with a rough, bumpy surface. However, their appearance may vary depending on where they show up on the body. The three most common types of warts are:

Common Warts

Common warts usually develop on the hands. They look like raised, skin-colored growths (sometimes with dark specks) and are usually hard with a rough, bumpy surface.

Plantar Warts

Plantar warts are found on the soles of the feet and have a rough, spongy and calloused appearance. They are usually flattened by walking and, like common warts, may have dark specks.

Flat Warts

Flat warts most commonly show up on the face, though they may also develop on the backs of the hands and on the legs. They are usually very small, slightly raised and flesh-colored, and may appear in clusters (which can range from small to large in size).

What Causes Warts?

Warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) and can be easily transmitted to others, either by direct or indirect contact. Warts can therefore be spread by:

  • Direct skin contact with warts of infected people.
  • Contact with contaminated items (such as clothing, towels, bathmats and other surfaces).

Some people have a higher risk of developing warts than others. You are more likely to get warts if you:

  • Frequently use public swimming pools or communal showers.
  • Have a weakened immune system.
  • Are a butcher (as occupational handling of meat has been found to increase the risk of warts).
  • You can reduce your risk of developing warts by:

  • Wearing flip flops, sandals or swimming shoes in public pools, locker rooms and showers.
  • Washing your hands frequently.
  • Avoiding nail-biting and preventing cuts where possible (as warts are more likely to develop on broken skin).

What Are Genital Warts?

Some strains of HPV can cause warts to develop on, inside and around the genitals and anus. They are spread through sexual activity, and they are one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STI). Genital warts should always be treated in accordance with professional advice, so schedule an appointment with your doctor if you think you may have them.

Why Are Children More Likely to Get Warts than Adults?

Warts are far more common among children than adults. This is mostly because their immune systems are less developed, making them more prone to infections. As warts are spread by direct contact with infected individuals, typical childhood behavior (and group-care settings) may also be a contributing factor.

Treatment for Warts

Warts are not a serious condition and, in most cases, clear up by themselves after a period of months or years. Most people only get one or two warts so, unless they are causing emotional distress, treatment is often considered unnecessary.

Having said that, wart removal is usually effective and non-invasive; it is a much faster way to get rid of warts than simply waiting the infection out. Treatment may be performed at home, but persistent warts may need to be professionally removed by a doctor or dermatologist.

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How to Treat Warts at Home

If you only have one or two warts, you may be able to treat them at home. Home treatment for warts usually involves medicated ointments containing salicylic acid, but some natural remedies may also be effective.

  • Over-the-counter creams and ointments (salicylic acid): over-the-counter wart remedies (including gels, creams, pads and ointments) typically contain salicylic acid. When applied regularly, salicylic acid gradually dissolves the wart until it peels off. This treatment is often effective, but the process may take several weeks.
  • Natural remedies: various natural remedies can help to speed up the disappearance of warts, though they are unlikely to work as quickly as salicylic acid. Apple cider vinegar, lemon juice and garlic extract all have properties that have been found to assist with wart removal.

Professional Treatment Options for Warts

If warts don’t go away with home treatment, are widespread, painful, or causing distress, contact a doctor or dermatologist for professional treatment.
Common professional treatments for warts include:

  • Cryotherapy treatment (wart freezing): cryotherapy (freezing) is the most common treatment option for warts in older children, teens and adults. During cryotherapy treatment, the doctor will apply a very cold substance (liquid nitrogen) to the wart. If effective, this causes a blister to form around the wart, and the wart tissue dies and drops off after a week or two. People often need repeated cryotherapy treatments to remove warts, and it may be slightly painful; therefore, it may not be suitable for young children.
  • Cantharidin: cantharidin is a natural substance extracted from the blister beetle. When applied to warts, it can cause a blister to form beneath and around the wart. This lifts the wart away from the skin, which can then be clipped off.
  • Excision (cutting) and curettage (scraping): warts may be physically removed either by cutting the warts away (excision) or scraping them off using a specially designed surgical tool called a curette. This treatment may be distressing for younger children and is usually recommended for older children and adults.

Sometimes, warts can be hard to treat, even in the hands of a professional. If warts are especially persistent (and problematic), your dermatologist may recommend one of the following treatments:

  • Laser treatment: laser treatment can be used to burn and destroy wart tissue. This is often painful, so the area may be numbed with an anesthetic injection first.
  • Bleomycin therapy: bleomycin is an anti-cancer medication which may be injected into each wart to kill the virus. Like laser treatment, this may be painful.
  • Immunotherapy: immunotherapy drugs work by stimulating the immune system, which can help the body to eliminate wart-causing viruses. This is the standard treatment against genital warts, though it may also work on other types of warts.

How to Treat Warts: The Bottom Line

Warts are common among people of all ages, though they are especially prevalent in children. They are caused by a few different strains of HPV and can develop anywhere on the body; though they are most often seen on the hands, feet and face. These harmless, flesh-colored skin growths are usually few in number and eventually clear up by themselves.

Home treatments typically involve topical application of products containing salicylic acid, and these can help to expedite the healing process.

If warts are numerous, painful, or causing distress, they may also be professionally removed by a dermatologist or doctor. The most common solutions for how to treat warts include cryotherapy, cantharidin, and curettage and excision, though laser treatment or other medications may be recommended in severe cases.