What are warts?
Warts are small, harmless lumps of skin caused by a virus known as the human papillomavirus (HPV). A wart will usually have a flesh coloured appearance and the skin forming the wart will be rough. Warts are common in school-aged children but can happen at any age.
Types of warts
There are several different types of warts, each with a slightly different appearance:
- Common warts (verruca vulgaris) — these are small, raised areas of skin, usually round, with a rough surface of skin often looking like the top of a cauliflower. These warts often appear on your hands, elbows and knees.
- Plane warts — these are flat warts that are usually yellow in colour and appear on the hands and face. They are most common in children and can often spread and group together.
- Plantar warts — these are warts that appear on your feet, usually on the sole, heel or toes. The weight of your body causes the wart to be pushed into the skin so a plantar wart will usually not be raised like other warts and may even cause some discomfort when walking. You may notice a white area of skin with a tiny black dot or dots in the centre.
- Filiform warts — these are long, thin warts that usually appear on your eyelids, armpits or neck.
- Mosaic warts — these grow in clusters and are most common on your hands and feet.
How are warts treated?
Most warts will go away without treatment but it can take some time. In children, without treatment, 50% of warts disappear within 6 months and almost all (90%) will go away within 2 years. It can take longer in adults.
Many people choose not to treat warts because treatment can be uncomfortable.
There are several ways to treat warts, including those you can do yourself and treatments done by a doctor. If you choose to treat a wart, it’s important to stick with the treatment until the wart is gone.
If you are pregnant or planning pregnancy, you may need to avoid certain treatments, so talk to doctor before starting treatment.
Treatments at home
Cover the wart
Covering the wart with strong, waterproof tape may help it to clear up. It can also stop the wart from spreading.
Liquid or gel
A common method of treating warts involves applying a liquid or gel containing salicylic acid or lactic acid (wart paint) to the wart.
You can buy wart liquid or gel at your local pharmacy and put them on at home. Your GP can give provide a prescription for stronger solutions.
To use wart gels or liquids, you need to prepare the wart first:
- soak the area around the wart in warm water for 5-10 minutes (having a shower makes this easy)
- rub the wart with a nail file, emery board, pumice stone or even sandpaper
- put the gel or liquid on the wart, making sure you avoid the healthy skin around it
- let the gel or liquid dry and cover the area with sticking plaster
You usually need to use wart liquid or gel every day, and it can take many weeks to work.
Talk to your pharmacist about which wart treatment is suitable for you. Always follow the directions on the packaging for the use of wart treatments, and ask your pharmacist if you have any questions.
Never use wart paints on the face.
GP treatment options
Freezing a wart (known as cryotherapy) needs to be carried out by a healthcare professional. It works by exposing the wart to a very cold liquid, such as nitrogen or ether-based home treatments. This freezes the wart and destroys its skin cells. This treatment is commonly used for warts that appear on the face. Around three-quarters of warts will clear up after several treatments.
Burning and laser
Burning and laser wart removal treatments are done under local anaesthetic. Both treatments are done less commonly because they can leave scars.
This involves treatments that encourage the immune system to recognise and destroy the skin cells that are infected with the wart virus. This treatment takes time and can be very itchy.
How do you get warts?
You can get the HPV virus from direct contact with the skin from another person who has the virus or indirectly through contaminated surfaces such as public areas, such as the swimming pool or gymnasium). HPV infects the cells in the outer layer of the skin, causing them to grow and form a wart. It can take up to a year for the wart to appear for the first time.
Genital warts are caused by a different family type of HPV. These are sexually transmitted and can cause cervical and vulval cancer. Ordinary skin warts do not cause cancer.
Preventing warts from spreading
There are steps you can take to prevent warts from spreading:
- if you have a plantar (on the bottom of the feet) wart, you need to change your socks daily
- don't share towels with another person. If you have a plantar wart you should avoid sharing any footwear including socks
- if you have a plantar wart make sure you clean out the bottom of your shower or bath after use
- wash your hands if they come into direct contact with your wart, such as when you apply any treatments
- never pick, scratch or bite a wart
- don't share any medicines or remedies used to treat your wart. This includes emery boards and pumice stones
- if you go swimming and you have a plantar wart you should cover it up and wear thongs in communal areas. Don't go barefoot in public areas
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: September 2019