Ugly and annoying, warts never seem to go away fast enough. Treating them may help speed their departure.
Warts are generally harmless and often disappear on their own over time, but they’re unsightly, and some, like those found on the soles of the feet, can make walking and exercise painful. Wart removal can be a challenge, but fortunately, the most effective treatments are the least invasive.
Warts grow only in the epidermis, the upper skin layer. A typical wart has a raised, rough surface. (Some, like those on the face, may be smooth and flat.) The center of a wart may be flecked with dark dots; these are capillaries that supply it with blood.
What are warts anyway?
Warts occur when skin cells grow faster than normal because they are infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV). Among the 150 strains of HPV, about 10 cause cutaneous (skin) warts, including common, plantar, and flat warts (see “Common types of skin warts,” below). Certain other strains cause anal warts and genital warts. Some sexually transmitted types of HPV are implicated in cervical and other genital cancers, but the strains that cause skin warts have rarely been linked to cancer.
All of us come into contact with HPV repeatedly — when we shake hands or touch a doorknob, for example — but only some of us develop warts, and that’s hard to explain. Children and people with immune system abnormalities are particularly vulnerable. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, so are people in certain occupations, such as meat, fish, and poultry handlers. But the most likely explanation is that some people are simply more prone to warts than others.
Skin warts aren’t highly contagious. They can spread from person to person by direct contact, mainly through breaks in the skin. Theoretically, you can also pick up warts from surfaces such as locker room floors or showers, but there’s no way to know how often this occurs. Warts on one part of the body can be spread to other areas, so it’s important to wash your hands and anything that touches your warts, such as nail files or pumice stones.
A wart virus infection is different from a bacterial infection such as strep throat, which can be caught, treated, and eradicated because it progresses in a distinct, reliable pattern. The ways of warts are much less predictable. According to dermatologist Dr. Suzanne Olbricht, “The wart virus resides in the upper layer of the skin, and who knows where or when you picked it up? The virus could have been there for years. Then it makes a wart for reasons we don’t understand. And when the wart goes away, you can still find the virus in the epidermis.”