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What is a "wart"?


Rebecca Fitzgerald (Dermatologist) gives expert video advice on: Are warts contagious?; What are some available treatments for dealing with warts? and more...

What is a "wart"?

A wart is a harmless, common, non-cancerous growth in the upper layers of the skin caused by a virus.

What causes warts?

Warts are caused by a virus called the human papillomavirus. For some reason, although we may all be exposed to that virus, some of us get it and some of us don't get it. Some of us get it sometimes and not other times. In addition, warts can go away once the body decides to sort of get rid of them.

What are the different kinds of warts?

Warts are identified either by where they are or what they look like. For instance, a plantar wart is on your foot. A periungual wart is underneath or next to your fingernail. In addition, common warts are the one we think of most commonly, sort of a big rough capsule often on the fingers. Flat warts look like a small miniature version of those common warts. They are no bigger than the size of a pinhead. They are little bitty tiny things that you can barely see, but they are often noted on face. So, they seem to drive people crazy because there are a lot of little bumps on your face. They are better left untreated because the scars that can be left from the treatment are probably more noticeable than the warts themselves. Lastly are genital warts. Genital warts can be a very important infection as some of them now have been identified as a cause of malignancy and cervical cancer.

Are warts contagious?

Through casual contact, warts are probably not contagious. But if you use the same razor, say, and shaved your face with the same razor that someone with a face full of warts had just used, perhaps that might be something. If you are walking around barefoot in a shower that was just previously used by someone with a foot full of plantar warts, yes, that might put you at risk of, of developing the infection.

What are some available treatments for dealing with warts?

We don't have any specific medicine that kills the wart virus. However, the wart virus can only live inside the skin cell, so if we kill the skin cell that the wart virus is dependent upon, we also kill the wart. We can do that in one fell swoop by just scooping out all the virally infected cells, but then you're left with a sore that's probably a worse problem for you than the wart, so we tend to try and do things that kill it very slowly. Since it's in the top layer of the skin, we sort of kill it one layer at a time. The most common thing that's used is something called salicylic acid, and that's available in liquid and patches that you can buy over the counter. The acid denatures the protein in the cell that the virus is living in, and it dies. A dead wart, clinically, looks to the patient just like live wart. You still see the same bump, and oftentimes patients say "Well the treatment didn't work", when really it did work, and now all you have is a piece of dead skin sitting there that looks just like the wart, but is no longer proliferating. In addition to that, other treatments used for dealing with warts are freezing, burning, lasers to kill the blood supply that feeds the wart, and newer topical treatments that are aimed at stimulating the body's immune system to get rid of warts a little bit faster.