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Warts: Causes, Characteristics & Treatment

Warts: Causes, Characteristics & Treatment

By: Haron Omaita

What is a Wart?

Warts are small, rough, noncancerous growths that can occur on any part of the body. They may look like solid blisters or small cauliflowers. They are a result of viruses that belong to the human papillomavirus family (HPV). Their appearance depends on the thickness of skin and location on the body.  They are more likely to develop in individuals with a weaker immune system (x). For example, HIV weakens the immune system, so the body is often unable to fight off the virus that is responsible for causing the warts (x).

It’s estimated that as many as a third of children and teens have them, but just 3 to 5 percent of adults experience the condition (x). This is possibly because, over time, the immune system gets stronger and it becomes more able to prevent them from developing.

Causes of Warts

The HPV virus causes warts. The virus exaggerates the growth of keratin, which is a hard protein that’s found on the top layer of the skin (x).

Different strains of HPV cause different types of warts. The virus that causes them can be transmitted through close skin-to-skin contact or through contact with rough surfaces. The virus may spread to other body parts through (x):

  • Shaving the legs or face
  • Sucking on the fingers
  • Biting or picking at a wart
  • Biting the fingernails

Someone with wet or damaged skin is at risk for infection. For example, if a patient walks around a public swimming pool or uses a public shower and they have a cut on the soles of their feet, they may contract the virus and develop a wart (x).

It is not as common to get a wart from someone else, but the virus can be spread through contact. Patients with weak immune systems are especially at risk, especially if they have HIV/AIDS or if they are taking an immunosuppressant after an organ transplant (x).

Handling meat may also increase the risk of developing a wart. One study showed that 33 percent of slaughterhouse staff and 34 percent of butchers have common warts (x).

Warts are generally harmless, but HPV may cause them on or around the genital area and these may be more serious. These are caused by sexual intercourse and they can potentially cause anal, cervical, vulva or vaginal cancer, as well as cancer of the anus and the penis (x).

Causes of Warts

Characteristics of Warts

There are several different types of warts that differ in appearance where it appears on the body. Each has different causes and symptoms (x, x).

  • Common warts, which normally appear on the hands
  • Plantar warts, which affect the bottoms of the feet
  • Flat warts, which normally appear on the forehead and face
  • Filiform warts, which grow very quickly and usually on the face
  • Genital warts are found in the pubic region, on the genitals and between the thighs

Common Warts

These often appear on children’s bodies. If a child has a growth on their face, they may also have them on their hands as well. Nail biting or touching the face can spread the virus that causes the growth. Most of the time, they feel like ragged bumps and they may often have black spots on them. Usually they grow on the backs of the hands, on the fingers and around the fingernails, often where there is broken skin from picking or biting hangnails or fingernails (x).

Plantar Warts

These grow on the soles of the feet, which is called the plantar surface. They may grow in clusters called mosaic warts. Plantar warts are usually flat with black spots or they may start to grow inward because walking puts pressure on them. They are also very painful (x).

Flat Warts

Flat warts often grow in large groups; a patient can have between 20 and 100 at a time. They are smooth, small and they can grow anywhere on the body. In children, they usually grow on the face, men usually have them around their beards and women often have them on their legs (x).

Filiform Warts

These look like long, thin threads protruding from the skin. They can grow very quickly and usually appear on the face—around the eyes, mouth and nose (x).

Genital Warts

Genital warts are a type of STD and they only grow on the genital area. They spread through skin to skin contact—during vaginal, anal or oral sexual intercourse—with someone who has the infection (x). These warts are different than other types; they do not spread from touching yourself or someone else with the hands or feet (x).

Patients with genital warts should let a doctor know immediately. It’s imperative that the patient receives treatment because they can get worse if they are not treated. If a patient has genital warts, their partner is also at risk for infection (x).

Certain HPV strains can also cause unusual cells to form on the body. Often, these cells may become cancerous if they’re not treated. HPV may lead to cancer of the vagina, vulva, penis or the anus. It may also cause cancer in the throat, on the tongue and on the tonsils (x).

Treatment for Warts

A dermatologist can diagnose a wart by looking at it. But sometimes the doctor may need to remove the growth and perform a biopsy to examine it. They often disappear by themselves, especially in children. However, they may not go away as easily in adult cases. Most warts tend to be harmless, but there are treatment options.

Be sure to see a dermatologist if it is persistent, if there are many of them or if they cause pain. There are lots of treatments for warts. Treatment will depend on the patient’s health and age, as well as the type of wart (x).

Cryotherapy

Also called freezing, cryotherapy is the most common wart treatment for most types among older children and adults. This treatment causes pain, but not much. Patients with dark skin may develop dark dots. Most patients require more than one treatment (x).

Cantharidin

A dermatologist can apply cantharidin to treat warts. Cantharidin causes a blister to form under it and after about a week, the doctor can remove the dead growth (x).

Electrosurgery and Curettage

Electrosurgery is an effective treatment for plantar warts, common warts and filiform warts by burning them. Curettage scrapes off the growth with a small, spoon-shaped tool or a sharp knife. Usually the patient gets both of these methods at the same time. The doctor can scrape it off before or after they burn it (x).

Excision

In this procedure, the doctor cuts the wart out (x).

Laser Treatment

This treatment is generally for warts that have not responded to other treatments. Before the procedure, the patient receives an anesthetic injection to numb the growth (x).

Other Treatments

Patients may also require other types of treatment methods (x).

  • Retinoids, from Vitamin A, that hinder the growth of the wart’s skin cell
  • Bleomycin if other treatments fail to prevent protein synthesis
  • Immunotherapy to stimulate the immune system to get rid of the wart

Warts can be hard to get rid of. If the growth disappears, the virus can stay in the body and warts can reappear. Common warts are especially hard to remove.

Home Remedies

There are several home remedies that may help remove warts.

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Salicylic Acid

Applying salicylic acid can help treat warts. It doesn’t require a prescription and it is available as a liquid, plaster (pad) or gel. Apply it to the growth daily after soaking it in lukewarm water for about five minutes. Salicylic acid can damage healthy skin, so make sure to protect the skin around the wart before applying the topical ointment, and do not put it on the face.

Salicylic acid rarely causes pain. Use the topical for about three months. If the wart or the skin around it begins to feel sore, stop the treatment. It may take weeks of salicylic treatment to see results (x).

Duct Tape

There is anecdotal evidence for duct tape to treat warts, even if it sounds weird! Yes, that sticky tape you use for odd tasks around the house might banish warts. It is not completely clear how duct tape works to remove them, some studies have suggested that it may be effective (x). Some researchers believe it cuts off oxygen from the skin cells and helps kill it, but other studies have produced conflicting evidence on its effectiveness (x). Consult a doctor before using duct tape as a treatment but if they approve, try it out. Stick some duct tape on it after it is clean and dry and change it after about a week for eight weeks. However, it may cause skin reactions, such as redness, itching and bleeding (x).

Garlic

Garlic isn’t just a natural bug bite and acne treatment—it can also treat warts. In fact, garlic has been proven to be useful for treating common, flat and plantar warts (x).

Apply two to four drops of tea tree oil or thuja on the wart and then cover it with a garlic patch for potentially amazing results. Cover it and the skin around it with a thin film of olive oil, apply a slice of garlic and then tape it. Perform this routine before bed for up to 21 days. As it starts to die, it will turn black.

Essential Oils

Some patients also use essential oils to treat these growths. Some of the best essential oils for wart treatment include oregano oil, eucalyptus oil, peppermint oil, thyme oil, lemon oil and tea tree oil (x, x). All of these oils contain antiseptic properties. Thyme oil and oregano oil both have carvacrol, which is an antibacterial substance.

Supplements for the Immune System

Because warts are caused by a virus, taking supplements to benefit the immune system may help prevent them. However, supplements are not an effective replacement for any medical condition. Consult a doctor before taking supplements. 

Vitamin A

Used in cosmetics, Vitamin A benefits the skin and contains retinoic acid, which modifies the immune function and helps the body resist infection, which may cause warts. It also helps reduce inflammation and acts as an antioxidant to fight free radicals that cause damage in the body. The recommended dosage of Vitamin A palmitate powder is 30 mg per day unless a doctor advises a different dosage.

Beta-Carotene

Beta-carotene contains Vitamin A and acts as an antioxidant to fight off damage from free radicals. It also helps promote healthy skin, which may be able to prevent warts from forming on the skin. As a dietary supplement, take 1,300 mg of beta-carotene powder every day, which is about ½ tsp, or follow a doctor’s advice on dosage.

Vitamin C

Though the body does not naturally produce Vitamin C, it is essential and works with other enzymes to boost immunity. It also offers skin benefits, working alongside Vitamin E, which may help prevent warts. Take 1,000 mg (or ¼ tsp) of Vitamin C / ascorbic acid powder every day unless a doctor recommends a different dosage.

The Bottom Line

Warts are growths on the skin that develop from the HPV virus. The virus makes the skin grow faster than normal. HPV can spread via direct contact with an infected person. The virus that causes them can also move to other areas of the body.

Warts resemble tiny, grainy bumps with a rough texture. Most of them are white, pink, tan or flesh-colored. Sometimes they have small black spots. Most often, common warts occur on the hands, on the fingers or around the fingernails. They can also develop on other parts of the body, including the soles of the feet (plantar warts), flat warts (usually on the face) and genital warts (normally on or around the genitals).

They often disappear without treatment, especially in children. Adults find it hard to shake them off as quickly and easily as children can. While most of them cause no harm, genital warts can be more serious and can even turn cancerous. Dermatologists can treat and remove them with a variety of methods. Patients should see a skin specialist if they have many growths, if they cannot remove them with home remedies or if they cause pain. There are many wart treatments available but no single treatment works for everyone. The treatment will depend on the type, the patient’s age and their overall health. Home remedies and supplements may be able to boost the immune system and promote healthy skin.

 
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