Skin Health

Winning the War on Warts

Warts can be one of the peskiest, most embarrassing skin problems around. They look bad, and you’re not going to avoid them by, say, staying out of the sun. Why do people get them, and what can you do about them? Here, experts from the Harvard Medical School share their knowledge:

Warts, small growths on the surface of the skin, are caused by infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV). And that can happen by touching a surface (like a table) that a person with warts has touched, or by being in direct contact with an infected person.

The most common skin warts, the Harvard experts say, are raised, round or oval, and are about the size of a pencil eraser at most. They appear in a number of colors: light-gray, brown or gray black. They most frequently appear on the hands, fingers, arms, elbows or knees.

Common skin warts are raised, round or oval growths that are usually about the size of a pencil eraser or smaller. They may be light gray, flesh-colored, yellow, brown, or gray-black and most often appear on the fingers, hands, arms, knees, or elbows. Plantar warts, which appear on the soles of the foot, can be painful.

The good news, the Harvard experts say: most warts aren’t a big inconvenience and disappear after a year or two. But your doctor should always check warts again if they persist or grow in spite of treatment. Some skin cancers can look like warts.

Although warts can be treated at home, the Harvard experts say, some need a doctor’s attention. (Editor’s note: do not try self-treatment if you have warts on your face or genital area. You must see a doctor.) If you are diabetic or have nerve damage (neuropathy), check with your doctor before trying:

Salicylic acid. This over-the-counter remedy, which comes in liquid and patch form, helps relieve warts. The Harvard experts recommend soaking the wart in water for 10 to 20 minutes and drying the skin before putting on the medicine. Between treatments, you can gently use a nail file or pumice stone to remove dead skin from the surface of the wart.

Duct tape. This unlikely-seeming remedy can get rid of warts, the Harvard experts say, although they caution that research findings aren’t conclusive. If you want to try it, and your doctor says it’s OK, here’s how it goes: After covering the wart, leave it in place for six days. Then soak the wart in water for 10 to 20 minutes. Then, slough off the skin with a nail file or pumice stone. Repeat until the wart is gone, but make sure to leave skin uncovered for at least one day if you put on the duct tape again. If the treatment is working, you should see results in two to four weeks. But go to your doctor if the wart is getting worse.