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Worried about warts?

What you need to know

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Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, January / February 2014

What are warts?

Warts are small, skin-coloured growths or bumps on the skin that feel rough to the touch. They are most common in children and young adults, but older adults can also develop warts. They can grow on all parts of the body, but are commonly found on the face, hands, feet, genitals, and rectal area. 

How do they occur?

Warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). There are more than 100 types of HPV viruses, some sexually transmitted and some not.

Once you have warts, they can spread to other parts of your body. They may also be passed to another person when that person touches the warts. Warts on the genital area can be spread to another person during sexual intercourse. You can also get warts from objects that were used by someone who has warts. 

How many categories of warts are there?

There are several different types of common warts, including:

  • Plantar warts: These warts are found on the soles of the feet. They may grow directly into the sole of the foot or they may stick out from the surface of the foot.
  • Flat warts: These warts appear on many areas of the body. In children, they are most common on the face. In adults they are often found in the bearded area on men's faces and on the legs in women. Irritation from shaving may be the reason for this. They tend to be smaller and smoother than other warts and grow in clusters of 20 to 100 at a time.
  • Genital warts: These warts occur on the vagina or penis and in the area around the anus. Sometimes, you may not be able to see the warts and they may cause no symptoms. Symptoms they may cause include pain, itching, and burning. Genital warts can be sexually transmitted. Genital warts can be a more serious problem than warts on the skin. They need to be checked by your health-care provider.

How are they diagnosed?

Your health-care provider will examine your skin and the wart. Some tests, such as a Pap test in women, can help detect genital infection by HPV. 

How are they treated?

Your health-care provider may use a number of treatments to remove warts. Warts can be frozen, burned, surgically removed, treated with chemicals or drugs, or removed with a laser. Some warts can be hard to get rid of completely. More than one treatment may be needed.

You can buy non-prescription products to treat most warts that are not genital warts. These products contain acids that you put on the wart twice a day for several weeks. Gradually, the dead skin of the wart will peel off. Use caution because these acids can irritate normal skin. Do not use these products if you are pregnant, unless your health-care provider says it is okay.

Another option is using duct tape. Cover a wart with duct tape for six days. Then remove the tape and soak the wart in water. Next, gently rub the wart with a pumice stone or emery board. Put the duct tape back on the area for 12 hours. Repeat this process for up to two months, or until the wart is gone.

If you think you have genital warts, contact your health-care provider right away. Your sexual partner also may need to be seen. Avoid sexual contact until you are treated.

If non-genital warts do not interfere with walking or running or do not cause social problems or embarrassment, it may be best to leave them alone. In most cases your immune system will slowly get rid of the infection, but it may take many months. 

How long will the effects last?

Non-genital warts are usually not serious and may disappear on their own in two to three years. Some warts last a lifetime. Genital warts are more serious and are related to the development of cervical cancer and other types of cancer. Genital warts need to be treated by your health-care provider.

Treatment of warts can remove the warts, but it may not get rid of the virus. Because of this, warts may come back. 

How can I help prevent warts?

To reduce the risk of spreading warts:

  • Avoid brushing, clipping, combing, or shaving over areas with
       warts. 
  • Wear shoes or sandals in public areas, such as pools and locker
       rooms.
  • Use a different nail file or clipper for nails that have warts. 
  • Avoid biting your fingernails if you have warts. 
  • Do not pick at warts. Consider covering them with bandages to discourage picking. 
  • Do not share toiletries or other personal items such as razors with other people.
  • Protect yourself by knowing your sexual partner's health history.

Audra Kolesar is a registered nurse and manager with Health Links - Info Santé, the Winnipeg Health Region's telephone health information service.

The information for this column is provided by Health Links - Info Santé. It is intended to be informative and educational and is not a replacement for professional medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a health care professional. You can access health information from a registered nurse 24 hours a day, seven days a week by calling Health Links - Info Santé. Call 204-788-8200 or toll-free 1-888-315-9257.

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