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Warts

Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD

What Are Warts?

Warts are small, firm bumps on the skin caused by viruses in the human papillomavirus (HPV) family. Warts are common in kids and can affect any area of the body. They're often seen around the fingernails, on the feet, on the face, and near the knees.

Most warts do not hurt, but ones on the soles of the feet or ones that are frequently bumped into can be painful.

What Are the Kinds of Warts?

Types of warts include:

Common warts. Usually found on fingers, hands, knees, and elbows, a common wart is a small, hard bump that's dome-shaped and usually grayish-brown. It has a rough surface that may look like the head of a cauliflower, with black dots inside.

Flat warts. These are about the size of a pinhead, are smoother than other kinds of warts, and have flat tops. Flat warts may be pink, light brown, or yellow. Most kids who get flat warts have them on their faces, but they can grow anywhere and can appear in clusters.

Plantar warts. Found on the bottom of the foot, plantar warts can be very uncomfortable, and feel like you're walking on a small stone.

Filiform warts. These have a finger-like shape, are usually flesh-colored, and often grow on or around the mouth, eyes, or nose.

What Causes Warts?

HPV viruses that cause warts can be  passed from person to person by close physical contact or from touching something that a person with a wart touches, like a towel, bathmat, or a shower floor. (You can't, however, get a wart from holding a frog or toad, as kids sometimes think!)

Kids who bite their fingernails or pick at hangnails are at more of a risk for warts because they create open areas for a virus to enter and cause the wart. A tiny cut or scratch can put any area of skin more at risk for warts. Also, picking at a wart can spread warts to other parts of the body. Sometimes warts are sexually transmitted and appear in the genital area.

The length of time between when someone is exposed to the virus that causes warts and when a wart appears varies. Warts can grow very slowly and may take weeks or sometimes longer to develop.

How Are Warts Treated?

Warts will often go away on their own but can take from several months to a couple of years to do so. A doctor might decide to remove a wart if it's painful, interferes with activities because of discomfort, or is embarrassing.

There are different ways of removing warts, including:

  • using over-the-counter or prescription medicines to put on the wart
  • burning the wart off using a light electrical current
  • freezing the wart with liquid nitrogen (called cryosurgery)
  • using laser treatment

Within a few days after the doctor's treatment, the wart may fall off, but several treatments might be needed.

If an older child has a simple wart on the finger, ask the doctor about using an over-the-counter remedy that can help remove the wart. This treatment can take several weeks or months before you see results. But eventually the wart should crumble away from the healthy skin. Wart medicines contain strong chemicals and should be used with care because they can also damage healthy skin. Talk with your doctor before using any over-the-counter wart medicine on the face or genitals.

What Can Parents Do?

Most warts can handled at home. Help your child:

  • Soak the wart in warm water and then remove dead skin on the surface of the wart with an emery board (that's never going to be used for nails) before applying the medicine. Be careful not to file into the normal skin around the wart.
  • Keep the area of the wart covered while the medicine works.
  • Remember not to rub, scratch, or pick at the wart. Doing so could spread the virus to another part of the body or cause the wart to become infected.
  • Remember not to share towels or other personal items with others.

You might also have heard that you can use duct tape to remove a wart. Talk to your doctor about whether this type of home treatment is OK for your child.

Can We Prevent Warts?

It's not always possible to prevent warts. But it's always a good idea to encourage kids to wash their hands and skin regularly and well. If your child has a cut or scratch, use soap and water to clean the area because open wounds are at risk for warts and other infections.

It's also wise to have kids wear waterproof sandals or flip-flops in public showers, locker rooms, and around public pools (this can help protect against plantar warts and other infections, like athlete's foot).

When Should I Call the Doctor?

Call your doctor if:

  • Your young child or infant has a wart anywhere on the body.
  • A child (of any age) has a wart on the face, genitals, or rectum.
  • You're not sure if what your child has is a wart.
  • Warts spread to new places on the body.

Also call the doctor if a wart or the skin around it is:

  • painful
  • red
  • bleeding
  • swollen
  • oozing pus
Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: February 2019