Warts are small, rough growths caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). Any area of your skin can be affected, but warts are most commonly found on your hands, feet and face. Warts on the soles of your feet are known as verrucas and are also caused by HPV.
Warts and verrucas are common and most people will have at least one at some point in their life, most often in childhood or adolescence. Worldwide, up to 12 in 100 people have warts and verrucas. Warts and verrucas are usually harmless and go away by themselves, with up to nine in 10 disappearing within two years in children. It may take longer for warts and verrucas to clear up for adults.
Common wart (verruca vulgaris)
These are firm, raised growths with a rough surface, which might look like a very small cauliflower. They are most commonly found on the backs of your hands, fingers, toes and on your knees.
Verruca (plantar wart)
Verrucas are usually found on the soles of your feet. They may have dark spots in the centre and may be painful when you put weight on them.
Plane wart (verruca plana)
A plane wart is usually a round, smooth, flat growth that’s often yellow in colour. They most commonly appear on your face and the backs of your hands.
A mosaic wart is usually a number of warts or verrucas packed together in a small area, often on your hands and feet.
These are long, slender growths, most often found on your face and neck.
Genital warts are usually caused by different types of HPV. They usually spread from other parts of your body, or most often, by sexual contact. If you have these warts it’s important to see your GP or go to a sexual health clinic for further advice. Don’t use over-the-counter wart treatments on genital warts.
Warts and verrucas won’t usually cause you any symptoms. However, you may find them uncomfortable or painful, especially if they are on your feet, genital area or near your nail beds. You may find them unsightly.
Most warts and verrucas go away by themselves but they can last two years or more. Contact your GP if your symptoms get worse or the wart or verruca becomes more painful.
Warts and verrucas are caused by HPV, of which there are over 100 different types. Warts and verrucas can be contagious, but the risk of you catching them is low. Warts and verrucas usually spread from direct skin contact or in damp places, commonly in swimming pools and communal showers. If you scratch a wart or verruca, the viral particles may spread to other areas of your skin.
If you handle meat or work in an abattoir, you may be more likely to develop warts on your hands.
If you have a weakened immune system, such as if you have HIV/AIDS, or if you’re taking medicines that suppress your immune system, you’re more likely to develop warts and verrucas.
If you're worried about your wart or verruca, visit your GP. He or she will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history. Your GP will try to diagnose which type of wart or verruca you have by its appearance.
Most warts and verrucas will go away by themselves and don’t need any treatment. Often, leaving them is the best option, especially for children, as some treatments can be painful and cause side-effects.
However, you may want to consider treatment if your wart or verruca becomes painful, unsightly or doesn’t go away. Although this may help to clear your wart or verruca more quickly, there is no one treatment that is fully effective and little evidence to show which treatments work best.
If you have warts on your face that you would like to have treated, you will probably need to be referred to a dermatologist (a doctor who specialises in identifying and treating skin conditions). If you're not sure whether your growth on your skin is a wart or verruca, see your GP.
Although there isn’t much evidence to show that it works, placing duct tape over your wart may help to get rid of it. Cover the wart with duct tape for six days, then soak the wart in water and rub with an emery board or pumice stone to scrape off the dead skin. Keep the wart uncovered overnight and re-apply duct tape the next day. You may need to continue this cycle of treatment for up to two months before the wart disappears. This treatment is not recommended for verrucas.
There are many creams, gels (eg Bazuka gel) and medicated plasters for treating warts and verrucas, which you can buy at pharmacies. Many of these contain an ingredient called salicylic acid. This is a chemical that helps by softening the hard outer layer of your wart or verruca. Don’t use it on warts on your face because of the risk of irritation and scarring.
If you use this treatment, make sure you only apply it to the wart or verruca. Try to get as little as possible on the surrounding area as it can cause irritation to your healthy skin. Use an emery board or pumice stone once or twice a week to remove any excess hard skin. You may need to use this treatment for up to three months.
Creams containing imiquimod can be applied to sensitive areas of your skin, like your face and genital areas, to get rid of warts. Imiquimod stimulates your immune system to recognise and attack the wart virus. You will usually need to be referred to a dermatologist to be prescribed creams that contain imiquimod or retinoids. You may be offered this treatment if other treatments haven’t worked or could cause problems for you, such as scarring.
Creams containing retinoids, often prescribed to treat acne, can also be used to treat warts. Some medicines contain podophyllotoxin. Don’t use retinoids or podophyllotoxin if you're pregnant, trying to get pregnant or breastfeeding.
Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.
Cryotherapy is the process of freezing your wart, using liquid nitrogen. Cryotherapy is usually done by your GP or a dermatologist. The liquid nitrogen is applied to your wart using either a spray or applying it with a cotton bud. It will take between five and 30 seconds to freeze your wart depending on the technique used and the size and location of your wart.
Cryotherapy may need to be repeated every one to four weeks for up to three months. It can be painful and sometimes lead to blistering or scarring of your skin. It isn’t often recommended for children because it’s painful and they may not be able to stay still long enough for the procedure to be carried out.
In certain circumstances, such as if your wart is over a tendon or you have poor circulation, cryotherapy may not be recommended. Cryotherapy for verrucas hasn’t been found to be any more effective than salicylic acid treatment, so your GP or dermatologist may recommend that you try salicylic acid first.
Surgical removal of warts or verrucas often can't clear the HPV infection that causes them. This means the warts and verrucas can come back afterwards. For this reason, you may be offered a combination of surgery and one of the medicines mentioned above. Your wart or verruca may be removed under local anaesthesia by scraping it away using an instrument called a curette. This procedure can leave a raw or painful area and result in scarring.
If you have multiple or mosaic warts, or other treatments haven’t been successful, your GP may occasionally suggest laser treatment. This involves using a laser to destroy your wart and the blood vessels that supply it. There is very little evidence to show whether this treatment is effective. It can also lead to pain and scarring.
If you have a condition that means your immune system is weakened, such as HIV/AIDS or leukaemia, you're more likely to develop warts and verrucas and they can be harder to treat.
Warts and verrucas are benign (non cancerous) skin lesions, but occasionally skin cancers can look very similar to warts. If your wart or verruca is painful, gets larger or changes colour, visit your GP.
Warts and verrucas are usually caused by direct skin contact or contact with contaminated surfaces.
Taking the following precautions can help prevent warts and verrucas.
There is no reason why you can’t continue to take part in activities, such as sports or swimming, if you have a wart or verruca. It's a good idea to cover your wart with a plaster or, if you go barefoot in communal areas, you may want to wear a verruca sock.
Produced by Louise Abbott, Bupa Health Information Team, February 2013.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.
Bupa Health Finder
Find health information and more while on the move with our free Bupa Health Finder app.