Better Me

Is That Skin Bump a Wart? How to Tell and What to Do

If you or your child develops a bump on your skin, you could be dealing with a wart. They are very common — according to the National Library of Medicine, up to 33% of children and teenagers and 5% of adults have them.

Most of the time, warts aren’t anything you need to worry about. You may find them unsightly or annoying, but they almost always go away on their own, eventually. Troy Tompkins, MD, a family medicine specialist at Banner - University Medicine Primary Care in Arizona, filled us in on what causes warts, how to prevent them and how to treat them.

Dr. Tompkins said there are three types of warts you’ll come across most often:

  • Common warts. These small bumps usually develop on your hands. These skin growths feel rough and sometimes contain blood vessels that look like tiny black dots.
  • Plantar warts. You’ll find plantar warts on your feet, often on pressure points like the balls of the feet and the heels. They look and feel like common warts. Sometimes they grow inward, underneath a callus.
  • Flat warts. True to their name, these warts are flat and smooth. They may be the same color as your skin, or they could be brown or yellow. If you get flat warts, you’ll likely have a lot of them.

You could also develop other types of warts, including genital warts, and warts can appear anywhere on your skin.

What causes warts?

human papillomavirus (HPV) infection causes warts. “People are sometimes surprised to find out that HPV is what causes warts,” Dr. Tompkins said. “You may think of HPV in terms of sexually transmitted infections, genital warts, abnormal pap smears or cervical cancer. But there are lots of different strains of HPV that can cause different health conditions.”

You won’t notice a wart right away. It can take two to six months after you’re exposed to the virus before a wart appears.

How can you prevent warts?

Warts are contagious, so avoid skin to skin contact with someone else’s warts and take steps to keep your own from spreading on your body. Wear sandals in public pool areas and locker rooms. If you or someone in your household has warts, you can reduce the risk by having everyone use separate towels, wearing sandals when you shower and sterilizing things like nail clippers that might touch the warts. It can be helpful to have two or more emery boards, pumice stones or nail files — one that touches the warts and one that you only use on healthy skin.

Children and young adults are at higher risk for warts since they don’t have as much immunity to HPV. People with weak immune systems are also at higher risk.

The HPV vaccine protects you from certain types of HPV that cause genital warts. But it doesn’t target all strains of HPV, so it can’t prevent all warts.

How can you diagnose warts?

Doctors can usually diagnose warts based on their appearance. They may also scrape off the top layer of the wart to look for the dark blood vessels warts often contain. If a wart seems abnormal or suspicious, your doctor can send it to a lab for examination.

How can you treat warts?

You don’t always have to treat warts. They often go away on their own, though it can take a long time — possibly two years or more. “If warts aren’t spreading and aren’t bothersome, it would be ok to hold off on treatment or try over-the-counter (OTC) treatment for a few months,” Dr. Tompkins said. If you want to treat them yourself, you can try:

  • Medications that contain salicylic acid in an ointment, pad or liquid, which slowly peel away the wart a little at a time. You’ll need to use them every day for a few weeks.
  • Medications that contain nitrous oxide to freeze the wart, so it will fall off in 10 to 14 days.

Dr. Tompkins recommends seeing a health care professional if your warts are spreading or bothering you, if OTC treatments aren’t working or if you have genital warts. Your doctor may be able to treat the warts with cold liquid spray (cryotherapy) treatments. You may need multiple treatments for larger or deeper warts. Sometimes, removing warts surgically is the best choice.

You may also want to see a specialist to treat some warts — for example, an ear, nose and throat specialist to treat warts in your mouth or a urologist to treat genital warts.

The bottom line

Warts are common, especially in children and teenagers, and they’re usually not anything to worry about. If they bother you or they’re spreading, you can try over-the-counter treatments or see a doctor for more powerful remedies. To connect with a health care provider who can diagnose and treat your warts, reach out to Banner Health.

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