Warts are a very common skin problem, and they are caused by a virus. This means they can spread from one person to another, or from one finger to another, so it isn’t a good idea to pick at the warts or use personal hygiene tools like nail clippers or pumice stones to get rid of them. Which begs the questions, what should you do about your warts and when is it time to see a provider about them?
How are warts successfully treated?
Wart treatments all involve what dermatologists refer to as “destruction techniques.” We do not have medicines to kill the virus that causes the wart, but we can kill the cells they are infecting, which kills the warts, too. You may have seen many types of destruction techniques at your local pharmacy. Liquids or plasters which are applied to the wart are made with salicylic acid. These work well against warts by killing the skin cells where the wart is growing. The stronger the product (look for a higher percentage of salicylic acid), the more likely it is to work. One caution is to use the product as it is directed. In my dermatology clinic, I occasionally see patients with chemical burns after misusing the over the counter wart products.
Do over-the-counter remedies work?
The most common pitfall I see in wart treatment is not treating long enough. Warts on the bottom of the feet can take six to 12 months of active treatment before they go away completely. Warts on the hands or other areas may take less time, closer to four to six months. Patients often come to my clinic having stopped treatment after just a few weeks, because the warts had not been cured yet. Be patient and give it time. Over-the-counter remedies will work for most people if used properly. In particular, look for 40 percent salicylic acid plasters that you can cut to fit your wart. These products provide detailed instructions and are effective.
Are there any remedies to avoid?
Patients bring many stories of the treatments they have tried at home. Banana peels, duct tape, and power tools come up from time to time, but the most common item seems to be nail clippers. I can handle banana peels and duct tape (there are even good medical studies indicating duct tape can cure warts), but when it comes to power tools and nail clippers, I think the risk of something going wrong is too high. Also, if you were to get the wart virus on the nail clippers and then clip your toe nails or fingernails, you might end up with 10-20 more spots that have new warts. They are contagious after all. I also recommend avoiding over-the-counter freeze sprays, as these are not nearly as cold as the liquid nitrogen used by your provider and these products are often difficult to use.
Do I need to treat my warts?
Generally, it is not harmful to leave warts untreated. The exception to this is very large warts on the soles of the feet which last many years. This type of wart has a higher risk of becoming a squamous cell skin cancer over many years’ time. They are likely caused by the HPV type virus which is resistant to treatments and can turn into a malignant cancerous formation over time. My general advice to a patient is if you have had them a long time and they are painful, you should schedule an appointment with your provider, particularly for warts on the bottom of a foot. On average though, warts tend to clear without treatment in approximately two years.
When should you schedule a visit to a provider’s office for wart treatment?
Some patients like to be seen by a provider as soon as they realize they have a wart. Others like to try the over-the-counter products first. I recommend patients try the over-the-counter products. They do work well if given enough time. If they haven’t caused the wart to become smaller in four to six months, then it’s time to see your provider. Your provider will likely use a combination of products that can be found in the pharmacy. Sometimes the products available at your provider’s office are stronger and more effective than what you could purchase on your own. Your provider will continue to search for the cure to your warts if they prove to be very stubborn and difficult to clear up.
Posted by Riddell Scott, MD, Ridgeview Specialty Clinic-Dermatology
Medical and health information presented here is intended to be general in nature, and should not be viewed as a substitute for professional advice. Please consult with a health care professional for all matters relating to personal medical and health care issues. In case of an emergency, please call 911.