Getting rid of common warts

Published: April, 2014

Warts are small growths that occur when the surface of the skin becomes infected with human papillomavirus (HPV). A person can pick up this wart-causing virus by direct contact with a person who has warts or by touching the same surface (such as a desk) that a person who has warts has touched. Warts can appear at any age, but are most common in older children.

Common skin warts are raised, round or oval growths that are usually about the size of a pencil eraser or smaller. They may be light gray, flesh-colored, yellow, brown, or gray-black and most often appear on the fingers, hands, arms, knees, or elbows.

Warts on the soles of the feet are called plantar warts. These flattened growths are sometimes painful, especially when they occur on a weight-bearing part of the foot.

Most warts are a minor inconvenience and go away after a year or two. Sometimes warts disappear, only to return. A doctor should always check warts that persist or grow despite treatment to rule out certain skin cancers that can look a lot like warts.

You can treat many warts successfully at home. However, some will require a doctor's attention. If you have diabetes or neuropathy (nerve damage), be sure to check with your doctor before trying either of these treatments.

Treating warts at home:

  • Salicylic acid. Available over the counter as a liquid or in a patch, this chemical helps remove warts. For best results, soak the wart in water for 10 to 20 minutes and dry the skin before applying the medicine. Between treatments, use a nail file or pumice stone to slough off dead skin from the wart's surface.
  • Duct tape. This sticky silver tape can actually help get rid of warts, though study findings have been mixed. Cover the wart with the tape and leave it in place for six days. After removing the tape, soak the area in water for 10 to 20 minutes, and then slough off the skin with a nail file or pumice stone. Repeat these steps until the wart is gone (but leave skin uncovered for at least one night if reapplying the duct tape). Most people who find this treatment helpful see results within about two weeks, though complete disappearance of the wart can take up to a month. But check in with your doctor if the wart seems to be getting worse.

Treatments your doctor might try:

Cryotherapy. Liquid nitrogen can be used to freeze off the wart. Multiple treatments are often needed.

Curettage. A doctor removes the wart with a curved blade after numbing the skin.

Creams and liquids. Different prescription medications (applied in a doctor's office or at home) can eliminate skin warts.

For more advice on treating skin conditions and keeping your skin healthy, buy Skin Care and Repair, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.

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