What Causes Warts?
Warts appear when you become infected with a virus from the human papillomavirus (HPV) family. The virus promotes excessive production of keratin, a protein that makes up the top layer of skin. This rapid cell growth causes thick, hard skin to build up in the area of infection. These skin growths are noncancerous.
HPV is a common virus – there are over a hundred different types people can encounter and many of the infections cause no reaction at all. Only a handful of HPV infections cause warts, which are harmless and benign.
HPV is also the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). The majority of sexually active men and women will come into contact with the virus at some point in their lives. Some people remain asymptomatic, while others may develop genital warts. While many cases of genital warts are harmless, some do increase the risk of developing cancer. Always speak with a doctor if genital warts appear.
Who Gets Warts?
Not everyone who encounters HPV will develop warts, because the virus attacks the body’s immune system and everyone’s immune system functions differently. Risk factors include:
- Age – children and teenagers are more likely to get warts because their immune systems aren’t fully developed.
- Skin damage – HPV can enter the body through skin breaks (like cuts or scrapes) and the virus thrives in moist, injured environments. Biting fingernails and picking at hangnails increases the risk of infection through the fingernails and nail beds.
- Weakened immune system – people who have conditions that affect the immune system (like HIV, diabetes, or eczema) are at greater risk of becoming infected with HPV and developing warts, because their bodies can’t fight off the virus.
Warts are highly contagious – they can be spread by skin-to-skin contact and by sharing personal hygiene items like razors, towels and clothes. People can also spread warts on their own bodies by touching and picking at warts and then touching other areas of skin.
What Are Signs and Symptoms?
Warts can take anywhere from weeks to months to appear after a person is infected with HPV.
- Common warts develop on hands, fingers, knuckles, elbows, and knees. They are rough, flesh-colored bumps that may be dotted with black pinpoints. These black pinpoints are clotted blood vessels trapped in the wart.
- Plantar warts develop on the heels and soles of feet. Instead of growing out from the skin, most plantar warts grow into the skin, usually at areas where pressure is placed on the feet. They present as fleshy growths with black pinpoints and most are surrounded by thick, calloused skin. They may cause pain and pressure while walking or standing.
- Flat warts develop on the arms, face, and thighs. They are found in common shaving areas. Flat warts are raised growths with a flat top.
- Periungual warts develop under and around fingernails and toenails.
- Filiform warts develop on the face. These warts do not appear as bumps or growths, but rather as stalks that protrude from the skin.
- Genital warts are sexually transmitted, and they develop around the genital area.
What Are Treatment Options?
Most warts are harmless and do not require treatment. They resolve on their own in children and adults, although warts on adults can take up to several years to disappear. Warts can be removed if they become painful, irritating, or if they start to multiply. At-home treatments include drugstore peels with salicylic acid and freezing with nitrogen. In a doctor or dermatologist’s office, popular treatment options also include salicylic acid peels or nitrogen freezing. Surgery, shaving with a surgery razor, and laser treatments are also effective at removing warts.
If you have warts that are causing pain, changing in shape or color, oozing pus, or not healing with at-home treatments, contact your physician or dermatologist right away to determine if they need medical attention. Here at Florida Dermatology and Skin Cancer Centers, we specialize in conditions of the hair, skin, and nails, and our medical team is experienced in wart treatment and removal. Contact our offices today to schedule a consultation.