What are common warts?
Common warts, or verruca vulgaris, is a common dermatological condition that causes small, fleshy growths on the skin. They are most often found on the hands or fingers, but can also occur in any non-genital location. Common warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) – an umbrella term for a group of viruses.
HPV is contagious, meaning common warts can be passed from person to person, whether through direct skin-to-skin contact or indirectly through contact with a surface or object that is carrying the virus. People with weakened immune systems and children are more at risk of developing common warts.
The condition is generally considered to be non-serious and will often clear naturally without treatment. However, if necessary, treatment options are available.
Symptoms of common warts
Common warts are easy to recognise. They typically appear on the hands or fingers and are generally:
- Small, raised skin growths
- Oval or round in shape
- Rough to the touch
- Hard around the edges and softer in the middle
- Speckled with small black dots
Medical attention should be sought if:
- Warts cause pain or change colour
- Warts spread, do not respond to treatment or frequently recur
- An individual has a weakened immune system
- There is uncertainty as to whether the growths are common warts or a different condition
Causes of common warts
Common warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). There are over a hundred different types of HPV, each affecting one or several different areas of the body.
HPV infects the skin through small cuts, scrapes or weak spots and may incubate for approximately two to six months before developing into warts. It causes the protein keratin to develop in excess on the surface of the skin.
Common warts are particularly prevalent in children and young adults, as well as those with weakened immune systems as a result of conditions such as HIV/AIDS or organ transplantation.
HPV is contagious and is passed on through direct skin-to-skin contact or indirect contact with objects or surfaces. Damaged or wet skin is most likely to pick up the virus, meaning locations such as swimming pools are particularly conducive to infection.
Diagnosing common warts
In the majority of cases, a doctor or dermatologist will be able to diagnose common warts through a simple physical examination. If further confirmation is needed, a skin biopsy may be ordered. To do this, the top layer of the skin growth will be scraped off and sent to a laboratory for testing. This is a straightforward and minimally invasive procedure.
Common warts treatment
Common warts will often disappear without treatment, especially in childhood. However, common warts can also be persistent and last for a significant amount of time. They can also be painful and unsightly, especially when they form in clusters. In these cases, treatment options are available.
These treatment options may be used in conjunction with home treatment options, or when home treatment options have failed to remedy the condition. The method chosen by the doctor or dermatologist will depend on the severity of the warts, the symptoms and the general health of the individual.
- Salicylic acid: This is a common method for treating warts. Salicylic acid works by gradually dissolving layers of the wart tissue, eventually resulting in total removal. It is generally applied as a gel or liquid. Though it is also available in over-the-counter products, prescription varieties are typically stronger and more effective. Along with peeling away the surface of the warts, salicylic acid may also encourage the body’s immune system to combat the virus.
- Cryotherapy: Generally performed by a doctor, cryotherapy is a method of freezing warts using liquid nitrogen. After around a week, the resulting dead tissue can be sloughed off. Repeated sessions may be necessary.
If these options are ineffective, other, less common treatment methods may be used. These include:
- Trichloroacetic acid: This is a strong acid applied by a doctor.
- Immunotherapy: Individuals are given antigens which encourage the body’s immune system to fight the wart itself. This treatment is generally reserved for those with recurring common warts.
- Electrosurgery: This method involves burning away the wart tissue using a specially designed heated needle. A local anesthetic will usually be required to numb the pain, and scarring is possible.
- Laser treatment: A laser is used to burn off the skin tissue and remove the wart. It is generally considered to be a last resort option due to the likelihood of scarring and the extended recovery time.
Common warts home remedies
Given that common warts are generally non-serious, some people may choose to try and treat them at home before seeking professional medical advice. Common techniques for doing this include:
- Salicylic acid products: Non-prescription salicylic acid products – such as plasters, gels and rubs – are available from most pharmacies. These work in the same way as the prescription version, though they may be less powerful. Repeated application will generally be necessary.
- Liquid nitrogen: Non-prescription liquid nitrogen products are generally available from pharmacies for application at home, usually in the form of a liquid or gel.
- Apple cider vinegar: Mix a cup of apple cider vinegar with water, apply to the affected area using a cotton ball and leave the warts to soak in the solution for at least 20 minutes. Repeat this process until the warts have disappeared.
It can take a significant amount of time before home remedies make a difference. If they prove ineffective, seeking professional medical advice is advised.
Common warts prevention
It can be difficult to fully avoid contracting common warts, with most people experiencing them at some point in their life. However, certain preventative measures can help reduce the risk:
Avoid contact with other people’s warts Avoid contact with clothing, objects or surfaces that may be carrying the virus The HPV vaccine may reduce the risk of developing common warts, though this is not guaranteed and may be most effective when received at a young age.
If a person already has warts, they should take steps to avoid spreading the virus to other areas of the body. They can:
- Avoid unnecessarily touching or scratching the warts
- Cover warts with a plaster, especially when swimming
- Wash the hands regularly, especially after contact with the warts
- Avoid sharing towels and clothing
Common warts FAQs
Q: Should I be concerned about common warts during pregnancy?
A: No, infection with HPV should not pose any risk to your baby. As in any case of common warts, no treatment may be necessary, though options are available over the counter and from doctors.
Q: Are common warts contagious?
A: The virus that causes common warts is contagious. Children and people with weakened immune systems are particularly at risk of contracting HPV, which can be passed on through skin-to-skin contact or through contact with an object or surface carrying the virus. The risk of contracting HPV is especially high in warm, wet conditions, such as those found at a swimming pool or in a locker room.
Q: What is the difference between common warts and plantar warts?
A: Although common warts typically grow on the hands and fingers, they can develop anywhere on the body. Plantar warts are found on the feet only.
UpToDate. “Cutaneous warts (common, plantar, and flat warts).” July 26, 2017. Accessed August 15, 2017. ↩ ↩
Journal of drugs in dermatology. “Comparative study of topical 80% trichloroacetic acid with 35% trichloroacetic acid in the treatment of the common wart.” November, 2012. Accessed February 24, 2018. ↩
WebMD. “Warts: 10 Answers to Frequently Asked Questions.” July 15, 2017. Accessed August 17, 2017. ↩