What are warts?

Warts are growths in the top layer of the skin caused by a virus.  They are non-cancerous and can occur in several different locations on the body. The appearance of a wart depends on where it is.

Common warts are usually found on the backs of hands and fingers. They are skin coloured and often rough to touch. They are often described as cauliflower-like in appearance.

Foot warts are found on the soles of feet and are also known as plantar warts or verrucae. They can grow in clusters and are usually flat as a result of pressure from walking or standing. They may appear to have black dots in them - these are tiny damaged blood vessels and can be quite painful to walk on.

Genital warts are found on the genitalia, within the vagina or cervix in women and around the anus or within the rectum. The virus responsible for genital warts rarely causes warts on the hands or feet.

What causes warts?

Warts are caused by the human papilloma virus, which can be passed from person to person. There are more than 60 different types of human papilloma virus. The risk of catching warts on the hands and feet is quite low but genital warts are more easily spread by sexual contact.

Warts occur more easily when the skin is broken so are more likely to be found in people who bite their nails or pick at hangnails. Some people are more susceptible to picking up the wart virus than others.

Common warts and verrucae are more common in children than in adults.
What treatment is available?

Warts can disappear without treatment after a period of several months to years. However, treatment is usually advised as warts can spread to other areas and also infect other people. Warts on the feet can be painful.

There are various types of treatment depending on the position, size and number of warts present.

Cryotherapy (freezing) can be used to remove warts but several treatments may be necessary.

Laser surgery or cutting out the wart may be options for warts on the feet, although these are less frequently used.

Salicylic acid can be applied directly to the wart over a period of time in the form of an ointment (eg, Pickles Ointment®, Verrugon®), a solution or paint (eg, Duofilm®,  Occlusal®, Salactol®) or a gel (eg, Bazuka Extra Strength®, Cuplex®, Salatac®). These preparations can be bought over the counter from the pharmacist and are also available on prescription. They are usually applied daily and is usually recommended that the wart is pared down weekly during treatment. These preparations are used only for warts on the hands and feet, not for facial or genital warts. Other solutions available contain formaldehyde (Veracur®) or glutaraldehyde (Glutarol®).

Silver nitrate pencils (eg, Avoca®) can also be used to treat warts. Any dead skin in the area needs to be removed before treatment (usually with an emery file). The area should be covered with an adhesive dressing after applying the silver nitrate. It is applied once daily and can be repeated up to three times for warts and up to six times for verrucae (foot warts). This is only used for warts of the hands and feet, not for facial or genital warts.

Podophyllotoxin solution (eg, Condyline®, Warticon®) is used for genital warts, which can be difficult to treat. Genital warts may also require freezing or surgical treatment.

Fact sheet provided by MIMS

Date last reviewed: March 2008

Register or Subscribe to MIMS

GPs can get MIMS print & online and GPonline for free when they register online – take 2 minutes, and make sure you get your free MIMS access! If you're not a GP, you can subscribe to MIMS for full access.

Register or subscribe

MIMS bulletins

News and updates straight to your inbox.

Prescribing Update: Fortnightly news bulletin
Urgent prescribing updates
Spotlight: Disease-themed monthly round-up

Sign me up

MIMS Dermatology

Read the latest issue online exclusively on MIMS Learning.

Read MIMS Dermatology

Mobile apps

MIMS: access the full drug database and quick-reference tables on the go

MIMS Diagnosis and Management: concise information on signs and symptoms, investigations and diseases

Promo Image

Clinical calculators

Handy calculators and conversions for primary care.