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FAQ: What causes warts--and what can you do about them?

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  May 2, 2013 08:32 AM

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There is something about warts that makes them seem icky and embarrassing, although I'm not sure why; I think we have some odd associations with them (like with frogs and witches) that these skin growths, which aren't dangerous, don't deserve. They are incredibly common--up to a third of school-age children may have them--which means I have a lot of conversations with worried parents about warts.

Here's what people ask--and what I tell them.

What causes warts?
Warts are caused by viruses in the human papilloma virus (HPV) family. These are incredibly common viruses that can be easily passed between people (which is why warts are so common). They can also spread around the body.

Pools (and the showers associated with them) have traditionally been associated with warts, but a recent study suggests they've been getting a bad rap for no good reason--kids are much more likely to get them from family members and school friends. They grow really slowly, so it can be hard to figure out where you got them from.

I thought warts stuck out of the skin--how can those flat things on the bottom of my feet be warts?
Warts on the bottom of the feet are called plantar warts, and they do appear flat--but they can grow inward (or get pushed inward when you walk) and be painful.

Thumbnail image for wart.jpg
How can we make warts go away?
This is what people most want to know--and they want to know how to make warts go away quickly. That's hard, because, well, warts don't go away quickly. Patience is key. And actually, patience alone can sometimes do the trick; most warts will go away by themselves, if given enough time.

But if you'd like to hurry them along, there are some things you can do:
  • Salicylic acid. This is the most common treatment, and it's widely available in different forms (liquid, discs or a solid stick like a glue stick) without a prescription. I suggest to parents that they rub the wart gently with a nail file before using the medication (soaking it in warm water can help too). It still can take weeks or months for them to go away--like I said, these things don't go away quickly.
  • Freezing. Warts don't like being frozen, and this can help them go away a bit sooner (again, not quickly). There are freezing treatments you can buy without a prescription, and they are certainly worth a shot--but for more effective freezing treatments, you'll need to see your doctor or a dermatologist.
  • Duct tape. If you stick the tape over the wart and change it every few days, it may help by taking off the top layer of the wart. The cool colors of duct tape now available may make this a more appealing option to kids--and not only does it cover it from view (although they may have to explain why they have duct tape on them), by covering it, you can help prevent the spread.
  • Other home remedies. I've heard about people using all sorts of stuff on warts, like garlic, vitamin E, aloe and even carrots. I don't think there are any good studies to know if any of these actually work--I would try the other remedies first--but I don't think they can hurt.
There are other treatments such as cantharadin that can be done in a doctor's office--and in rare cases, sometimes we even do surgery to remove them. If the wart isn't going away, or if you aren't entirely sure that what you are dealing with is a wart, call your doctor.

How can we prevent warts?
The people who can do the most to prevent warts are the people who have them: when warts are covered, they are far less likely to spread. So if your child has one, keep it covered! Washing your hands regularly is always a good idea to prevent all sorts of infections, not just warts. The HPV vaccine can help prevent genital warts, but it doesn't prevent all warts. 

Bottom line: they aren't dangerous, you can't really prevent them--and they will go away. Which, compared to lots of other health problems, makes warts something parents really shouldn't worry about.

Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post.
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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