What are warts?

Warts are small growths or bumps on the skin caused by a virus. They can grow on all parts of the body, but are most common on the face, hands, feet, genitals, or rectal area.

Most warts are not serious and may go away on their own over time. Some warts last a lifetime. Treatment can remove the warts, but it may not get rid of the virus. Because of this, warts may come back.

Genital warts can be more serious. Some are related to the development of cervical cancer. Prompt treatment can prevent cervical cancer. Genital warts need to be treated by your healthcare provider.

What is the cause?

The virus that causes warts is called the human papillomavirus, or HPV. There are over 100 types of HPV viruses.

You may get a wart from touching someone else’s warts. Warts on the genital area can be spread to another person during sex. You can also get warts from objects, such as a razor, that were used by someone who has warts. Some people get warts more easily than other people. Warts can spread to other parts of your body.

It may take up to 3 months from the time you are infected with the virus until a wart appears on your skin.

What are the symptoms?

Warts are usually skin-colored, but may be gray or brown and feel rough when you touch them. They often cause a painless bump on the skin.

There are different kinds of warts.

  • Common warts appear as bumps on fingers, near or under nails, and on the backs of your hands. You may have them around the nails and cuticles, especially if you bite your nails or pick at hangnails.
  • Warts on the soles of the feet are called plantar warts. They may grow into the sole of your foot or they may stick out from the surface of your foot.
  • Flat warts grow on many parts of the body. They are often found in the bearded area of men’s faces and on women’s legs. Irritation from shaving may be the reason for this. They tend to be smaller and smoother than other warts and grow in clusters of 20 to 100.
  • Genital warts may be on the vagina, penis, and scrotum, and in the area around the rectum. Sometimes you may not be able to see genital warts, and usually they do not cause any symptoms. Sometimes they may cause pain, itching, or burning. Genital warts can be spread to the throat and vocal cords through oral-genital sex.

How are they diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. Most warts are diagnosed by how they look. Genital warts may be found when women have a pelvic exam and Pap test, which is a screening test done to check for abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix or vagina.

How are they treated?

Your healthcare provider may:

  • Put medicine on the warts.
  • Surgically remove the warts.
  • Freeze the warts with liquid nitrogen.
  • Destroy the warts with a laser.

You may need a local anesthetic to numb the area before some of these treatments.

In some cases your provider may recommend waiting to see if the warts go away on their own.

You can buy nonprescription products to treat most warts that are not genital warts. These products contain mild acids that you put on the wart twice a day for several weeks. Gradually, the dead skin of the wart will peel off. Use caution because these acids can irritate normal skin. Do not use these products if you are pregnant unless your provider says it is OK.

Another treatment for warts on the skin (nongenital warts) uses duct tape: Cover the wart with duct tape. Once a week, remove the tape and soak the wart in water. Gently rub the wart with an emery board, sandpaper, or pumice stone. (Don’t then use these items anywhere else on your body. They could spread the wart virus to other parts of your body.) Put duct tape back on the wart about 12 hours later. Repeat this process until the wart is gone. It may take up to 2 months.

How can I help prevent warts?

To help prevent spreading warts:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 15 seconds, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid brushing, clipping, combing, or shaving over areas with warts.
  • Always wear shoes or sandals in public areas, such as pools and locker rooms
  • Use a different nail file or clipper for nails that have warts near them.
  • Don’t bite your fingernails.
  • Don’t pick at warts. Consider covering them with bandages to discourage picking and to keep from spreading the virus to other parts of your body or to other people.
  • Don’t share toiletry or other personal items such as razors with other people.
  • Use latex or polyurethane condoms to protect as much of the genital area as possible during sex. However, because condoms do not cover all of the skin, also protect yourself by having only one sexual partner and by knowing your partner’s health history.

Girls, boys, and young women and men can get shots of a vaccine to prevent infection with some of the HPV strains that cause cervical cancer and genital warts. Ask your healthcare provider if the vaccine is right for you.

For more information about warts, contact:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-05-27
Last reviewed: 2014-07-10
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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