Warts are small growths that develop on the skin when various types of human papillomavirus (HPV) get into the skin cells. Plantar warts on the soles of the feet are commonly known as verrucas.
What Causes Warts?
Warts are caused by an infection with the human papilloma virus. The virus causes an excess amount of keratin, a hard protein, to develop in the top skin layer (epidermis). The extra keratin produces the rough, hard texture of a wart.
Warts vary in appearance and may develop singly or in clusters (mosaic wart). Warts can resemble certain cancers but are non-cancerous.
These growths are generally harmless and often clear up on their own, but it can take anything from months to years. In the meantime, warts can be itchy and, in the case of verrucas, painful to walk on. There are a number of treatments that you can use on warts at home.
Warts are mildly infectious and verrucas are often spread at swimming baths, where the papilloma virus thrives in the warm, damp atmosphere. It also has easier access to the cells if your skin is softened by water. Because the papilloma virus invades the cells through a break in the surface of your skin, warts are more often found on parts of the body that are prone to injury, such as the knees, hands and face. Children are more likely to get them than adults, who develop resistance to the papilloma virus if they had warts themselves as children.
How Do I Know If I Have Warts?
Common warts are either the same colour as your skin or brown. They are well-defined growths with a rough surface. Common warts vary in size (up to about 6 mm in diameter) and may appear in clusters.
Flat warts are flesh-coloured, flat on top and sometimes itchy. They tend to crop up on your wrists, face or the back of your hands.
Plantar warts or verrucas look like other warts but are flattened by pressure on the soles of your feet.
Digitate warts look as though they have little fingers coming out of them.
While filiform warts are long and thin; they favour the armpits, neck and eyelids.
What Can I Do Immediately To Make My Warts Better?
• If you cannot wait for your warts to clear up (and you should not do this with genital or anal warts), ask your local pharmacist about ointments, gels and plasters for removing warts.
• Alternatively, you can ask a doctor or practice nurse about cryosurgery, which involves freezing the wart solid with liquid nitrogen.
• If you have genital or anal warts, get your sexual partner or partners to go to a doctor or specialist clinic as well. Women with genital warts need to have an annual cervical smear.
• If you get a wart on your hand, try to wear rubber gloves while washing up, etc.
• Resist the temptation to scratch a wart, as you may spread the infection.
• Do not bite your nails if you have warts on your fingers.
• If you have a verruca, cover it when you go swimming.
What Can I Do Generally To Avoid Warts?
• Do not share towels or flannels with someone who has a wart.
• If your partner develops genital or anal warts, avoid sex (or at least use a condom) and make sure you have a check-up yourself.
What Treatments Can I Buy Without A Prescription?
Wart removers are available from pharmacies as ointments, gels, 'paints' and medicated plasters. Most of these products contain salicylic acid, which gradually softens and dissolves the wart. You should not use salicylic acid on broken skin or to treat facial, genital or anal warts.
You will probably have to apply these treatments every day for several weeks, sometimes using a pumice stone to rub off each layer of hardened skin. Ask the pharmacist for advice and follow the label instructions carefully.
• If you have genital or anal warts.
• If you are diabetic and have a wart (numbness in the hands and feet means that you could damage yourself with a wart treatment).
• If the wart does not respond to home treatment.
• If the wart changes colour or shape, or starts bleeding.
• Warts will usually clear up by themselves, but it may take a long time.
• Ask your local pharmacist about wart treatments.
• See a doctor if you have genital or anal warts, and get your partner(s) to do the same.
• Do not scratch a wart.