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Warts

  • Warts are generally harmless skin growths. They are very common, affecting around one in 10 children. Warts can come up anywhere on the skin or mucous membranes (eg mouth, genitals) however, most commonly on the hands, fingers, feet and face.

    Warts can spread, usually due to direct contact with someone with warts. Picking or scratching may lead to spread of warts on the same person. You can also get them indirectly through swimming pools or public showers especially if barefoot and you have scratches or cuts.

    Half of all warts will disappear within 2 years, but this is not predictable. They can last longer in adults, or people with immune system problems.

    There are many different types of wart virus, and you may become immune to one type, but develop warts due to another type. The immunity is not lifelong.

    Signs and symptoms

    • warts can have many different appearances, from flat, shiny, long stalks, or large rough lumps
    • they can be unsightly and embarrassing
    • they can be painful, particularly when they are on the feet or under nails

    Causes

    • Warts are caused by a family of viruses called human papilloma virus (HPV). Once infected with the virus, it may take up to a year or more for the wart to become visible. They then grow very slowly over a period of months to years.
    • Genital warts are caused by a different family type of HPV. These are sexually transmitted and can sometimes cause cervical and vulval cancer. This is not the case in ordinary skin warts.

    Treatment

    Treatment depends on the age of the patient and the number and location of the warts. No one treatment is guaranteed to work, and many require a few attempts.

    No treatment

    • You don't need to treat warts, especially if they are not causing any problems

    Topical treatments

    •  A good approach initially is to keep the warts covered with occlusive tape eg duct tape, 24 hours a day. This is simple and cheap, and may help to prevent spreading of the warts.
    • Liquid nitrogen freezing is a common treatment that is effective, but is painful.
    • There special ointments or wart paints that contain salicylic acid or lactic acid which are effective in seven out of 10 children. These ointments/wart paints peel away the layers of infected skin. Podophyllin (a wart paint) is toxic to warts, but should not be used in pregnancy. They can take up to three months to work.
      Before using paints it is important to prepare the skin by soaking the wart in warm-hot water for 10 minutes then paring (rubbing with a pumice stone or nail-file). The paint is then applied to the wart, taking care to avoid the normal surrounding skin. You can use petroleum jelly, such as Vaseline, to protect the skin around the wart. Allow it to dry, and then cover with tape.

    Other treatments

    • There are other treatments that encourage the immune system to recognise and destroy the skin cells that are infected with wart virus. They can be tried if above treatments do not work or if there are many warts.
    • We do not suggest having warts cut out due to the risk of them coming back, and scarring.

    When to come back

    • Make an appointment to see your doctor if the warts, or treatment, cause excessive pain

    Key points to remember

    • Warts are common, harmless skin growths caused by a virus
    • Warts can spread between people or on the same person
    • Half of all warts will disappear within two years
    • It is not essential to treat the warts, particularly if they are not causing any problems

    Other sources of information

     

    Developed by the Dept of Dermatology. First published 2004. Updated November 2010.

Disclaimer
This is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easily understood. The Royal Children's Hospital accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in the handouts.
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