How to Identify and Treat Warts, According to Doctors

Getty / pankration

There are so many skin concerns that are easy to diagnose yet hard to treat, including warts. If you haven’t dealt with warts personally before, you’ve probably seen one on someone’s finger or hand – especially while growing up, because they’re extremely common among children. Unfortunately, while some people stop getting them as they get older, they can persist into adulthood.

Once you accept the fact that you’re dealing with a wart (or a few of them), the one thing that may consume your mind is, “How do I get rid of it?” There are countless methods and tricks out there claiming to diminish warts, but it can be difficult to know which information to trust.

We know that caring for your skin can be a rollercoaster of emotions. Because these pesky little growths are common yet hard to deal with and often accompanied by discomfort, we spoke to dermatologists to help us understand exactly what warts are, what causes them, and what treatment options are.

Experts Featured in This Article

Howard Sobel, MD, is a dermatologist who operates Sobel Skin in New York City.

Jody Levine, MD, is the director of dermatology at Plastic Surgery & Dermatology of NYC.

What Are Warts?

Warts are benign (noncancerous), small, fleshy, and contagious growths that appear on the skin and sometimes inside your mouth. They feel “rough to the touch and form on the top layer of the skin,” dermatologist Howard Sobel, MD, tells PS. It’s common for children to get them, but adults do get them as well.

While warts are pretty harmless, people can often be bothered by their presence and can even experience pain associated with them. Warts vary in appearance depending on the type, but they range from one millimeter to a couple of centimeters in size, according to a Cleveland Clinic. They vary in appearance and can look dome-shaped, flat, rough, bumpy or cauliflower-like, smooth, thread or finger-like; skin-colored, brown, gray, or black; and can appear to have small brown dots in them.

When a wart is forming, the outer layer of your skin will turn thicker and feel harder.

What Causes Warts?

“Warts are caused by a strain of the human papillomavirus (HPV),” says dermatologist Jody Levine, MD. “The virus attacks the top layer of the skin and produces excess keratin, which leads to a wart.”

Dr. Sobel says it’s important to remember that there are different strains of HPV, and “therefore there are different types of warts that can develop as a result.” The virus can enter your skin from cuts on the skin, causing extra cell growth, per Cleveland Clinic.

“All warts come from HPV, but not all forms of HPV cause warts,” Cleveland Clinic’s website states, adding that the strain of HPV that can progress to cancer (strain 16 and 18), such as cervical cancer, doesn’t cause warts.

Different Types of Warts

According to Dr. Levine, there are a few types of warts that are most common for adults to get:

  • Common warts (verruca vulgaris): Per their colloquial name, this is a very common type of wart. They will typically appear on the hands, fingers, and knees, and will usually have a rough, grainy appearance.
  • Plantar warts (verruca plantaris): These warts are found on the soles of the feet and grow into the skin due to pressure. They will often cause pain.
  • Flat warts (verruca plana): Flat warts are smaller, smoother, and often appear in large numbers on the face, neck, hands, wrists, and knees.
  • Filiform warts: These warts have a long, narrow, finger-like shape and typically appear on the face, around the eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Periungual warts: Usually found around or under the nails, this type of wart can be painful and affect nail growth.
  • Genital warts: A sexually transmitted infection that usually appears in the genital and anal areas. They are flesh-colored and have a cauliflower-like appearance. They may cause itching or discomfort.

Medical Wart Treatments

When treating a wart, the goal is to destroy it and stimulate an immune system response to fight the virus. Oftentimes, warts may not clear up for a few weeks or even months, and unfortunately, they tend to come back or spread because they are not curable, per Mayo Clinic.

Dr. Levine says every wart is different and treating them is individualized. “Depending on the age of the patient, the location, and the type of wart, I treat each differently,” she says. “Some I may choose to remove with a scalpel and burn the base, some I treat with acid, some I treat by freezing or with laser or an injection. For others, I use a combination of methods.”

The treatment method that you choose should be dependent on where the wart is, your symptoms, as well as your preferences – whether you prefer getting a prescription or option for a natural method. A few options, including in-office techniques and wart treatments over the counter, that doctors might present you with are:

  • 5-fluorouracil: A wart medicine that is applied directly on the wart. You’ll need to keep a bandage over it for 12 weeks to see results, per Mayo Clinic.
  • Candida antigen: With this method, a candida antigen will be injected by your doctor into the wart. This stimulates the immune system to fight off warts.
  • Freezing therapy: A healthcare professional will apply liquid nitrogen to a wart to cause a blister to form under and around the wart to kill the tissue. This is also referred to as cryotherapy, and you’ll most likely need multiple sessions and may experience side effects such as pain and scarring.
  • Trichloroacetic acid or other acids: If salicylic acid or freezing doesn’t help diminish your wart, your doctor may suggest trichloroacetic acid or other acids. This method includes shaving the wart before applying the acid to it with a wooden toothpick.
  • Remove the wart tissue: Removing the wart tissue entails the use of a tool called a curet. Once removed, the wart may grow back.
  • Laser treatment: If no other methods work for you, your doctor may suggest laser treatment, also known as photo-based therapy. This can be done using carbon dioxide laser, pulsed-dye laser, or photodynamic therapy. This type of treatment will burn the blood vessels of the warts, leading to it dying and falling off, Mayo Clinic explains.

Natural Wart Treatments

Some natural ingredients may be helpful for warts as well. Tea tree oil, for example, has antiviral and antiseptic properties that may help diminish warts. Gels, liquids, and pads made with salicylic acid can also be effective treatments for warts, according to Dr. Levine. “It softens the skin and slowly peels away the infected skin over time,” she says.
“However, they have not been clinically studied or approved for the treatment of warts, so I would not say they’re as effective as OTC treatments like salicylic acid,” Dr. Levine says.

Sydney Wingfield has been a freelance writer in the beauty and wellness space for six years. She has written for Women’s Health, Marie Claire, Glamour, and other publications and loves to cover all things skin care, makeup, and hair.

Related Posts
Latest Beauty
The End.

The next story, coming up!