Warts are small lumps that often develop on the skin of the hands and feet.
Warts vary in appearance and may develop singly or in clusters. Some are more likely to affect particular areas of the body. For example, verrucas are warts that usually develop on the soles of the feet.
Warts are non-cancerous, but can resemble certain cancers.
Most people will have warts at some point in their life. They tend to affect children and teenagers more than adults.
Warts aren't considered very contagious, but they can be caught by close skin-to-skin contact. The infection can also be transmitted indirectly from contaminated objects or surfaces, such as the area surrounding a swimming pool.
You are more likely to get infected if your skin is wet or damaged. After you become infected, it can take weeks or even months for a wart or verruca to appear.
When to get professional advice
Pharmacy First Scotland: Warts and verrucas treatment from your pharmacy
If you have warts or verrucas you can get advice and treatment directly from a pharmacy. Find your local pharmacy on Scotland's Service Directory.
Warts and verrucas aren't usually serious and can be treated by a pharmacist. Your pharmacist may recommend that you see your GP if required.
Most types of warts are easy to identify because they have a distinctive appearance. You should always see your pharmacist first if you have a growth on your skin you are unable to identify or are worried about.
Your pharmacist will be able to tell if it's a wart simply by looking at it. Where it is on your body and how it affects surrounding skin will also be taken into consideration.
Sometimes your pharmacist will advise you to see your GP about a wart.
Speak to a GP if you have a wart that:
changes in appearance
causes you significant pain, distress or embarrassment
Most warts are harmless and clear up without treatment.
The length of time it takes a wart to disappear will vary from person to person. It may take up to 2 years for the viral infection to leave your system and for the wart to disappear.
You might decide to treat your wart if it is painful, or in an area that is causing discomfort or embarrassment.
Common methods of treatment include:
cryotherapy (freezing the skin cells)
Treatment for warts is not always completely effective, and a wart will sometimes return following treatment.
HPV is passed on through close skin-to-skin contact. It can also be transmitted indirectly by contact with contaminated objects, such as towels, shoes, areas surrounding swimming pools, or the floors of communal changing areas.
Warts are thought to be contagious for as long as they are present on your body. The virus is more likely to spread if the skin is wet, soft or has been in contact with a rough surface.
Warts can also be spread to other parts of your own body. You can spread the virus if you:
scratch, knock or bite a wart
bite your nails or suck your fingers (if they have warts on them)
shave your face or legs
This can cause the wart to break up and bleed, making it easier for the virus to spread. You are more vulnerable to verrucas if you have scratches or cuts on the soles of your feet.
Treating warts and verrucas
Warts usually clear up without treatment. However, it can take up to 2 years for the virus to leave your system and the warts to disappear.
The length of time it takes for a wart to disappear will vary from person to person. They tend to last longer in older children and adults.
In adults and people with a weakened immune system, warts are less likely to clear up on their own or respond well to treatment.
Leaving the wart to go away by itself is one option. However, you may want to consider treatment if your wart is painful, in an awkward position, or is causing you distress or embarrassment.
Your GP should always refer you to a specialist if you need treatment for a wart on your face.
How to treat warts and verrucas
There are a number of treatments available for warts. However, no single treatment is 100% effective, and the wart may return.
The aim of treatment is to remove the wart without it returning and without leaving any scarring.
Surgery to treat warts is not usually recommended because they often return and further treatment is required.
Some treatments may cause side effects such as mild pain, blistering and skin irritation around the wart.
Many wart and verruca treatments are available over the counter from pharmacies, including:
Salicylic acid is the active ingredient in most of these treatments. It has been shown that salicylic acid is as effective as cryotherapy for treating warts.
There is limited evidence available to show which type of salicylic acid treatment (cream, gel, paint or plasters) is most effective.
Salicylic acid and other wart treatments also destroy healthy skin, so it is important to protect your skin before applying the treatment. You can use petroleum jelly or a corn plaster to cover the skin around the wart.
Before applying the treatment to your wart, use an emery board or pumice stone to file it down a little (avoid sharing the board or pumice stone with others). Repeat this about once a week while you are treating your warts.
Each time you treat your wart, soak it in water for about 5 minutes first to soften it, then follow the instructions that come with the medication.
You may need to apply the treatment every day for 12 weeks or longer. You should stop the treatment if your skin becomes sore, and seek advice from your pharmacist.
Don't use treatments that contain salicylic acid to treat warts on your face. Ask your pharmacist for advice about the best type of treatment.
Consult your pharmacist before using over-the-counter treatments that contain salicylic acid if you have poor circulation – for example, if you have a condition like diabetes or peripheral arterial disease (PAD). This is because there is an increased risk of damage to your skin, nerves and tendons.
In cryotherapy, liquid nitrogen is applied to your wart for a few seconds to freeze and destroy the affected skin cells. After treatment, a sore blister will form, followed by a scab, which will fall off 7-10 days later.
A session of cryotherapy usually takes 5-15 minutes and can be painful. Large warts usually need to be frozen a few times before they clear up. You will probably need to wait a few weeks between each treatment.
There are 2 different cryotherapy methods. Liquid nitrogen may be sprayed directly onto the wart, or it may be applied using a stick with cotton wool on the tip. This second method is often preferred for treatment around the eyes or for small children.
Cryotherapy may be recommended if you have a wart on your face. This is because the risk of irritation is lower than when using salicylic acid or duct tape.
Cryotherapy is not usually recommended to treat young children because they may find the treatment too painful. It may also be difficult for them to stay in the same position while having the treatment.
If cryotherapy hasn't been successful within 3 months, further treatments aren't likely to be effective.
Possible side effects of cryotherapy include:
pain and blistering
your skin may become darker (hyperpigmentation) or lighter (hypopigmentation) – particularly if you have black skin
your nails may develop an abnormal change in shape or structure if cryotherapy is used to treat warts that develop around the nails (periungual warts)
Cryotherapy is sometimes carried out at GP surgeries or at hospital skincare clinics. However, it may not be available on the NHS in all areas of the country.
A very cold spray (dimethyl ether propane) is also available from pharmacies, which you can apply yourself. You should avoid using this spray on your face. Evidence suggests these sprays are not as effective as cryotherapy using liquid nitrogen.
Warts can also be treated using chemical treatments available on prescription. The treatments contain chemicals such as:
These chemicals are applied to the warts to kill affected skin cells. Potential side effects include the skin being stained brown (with glutaraldehyde) and burns to the surrounding skin (with silver nitrate).
If the above treatments do not clear warts then other methods may be tried such as:
light therapy (photodynamic therapy)
acupuncture (for flat warts only)
These treatments may not be available on the NHS.
Treating warts during pregnancy
If you are pregnant and have warts, your pharmacist may recommend using salicylic acid, cryotherapy or duct tape.
Salicylic acid can be used to treat warts during pregnancy, as long as it is used on a small area for a limited period of time.
Preventing warts and verrucas
Most people will be infected by the human papilloma virus (HPV) at some point in their life and develop warts.
However, there are steps you can take to lower your chances of getting warts and prevent spreading them to others, if you have them.
keep your feet dry
change your socks every day
take care when shaving as the virus can be spread easily if you cut yourself
do not touch other people's warts
do not share towels, flannels or other personal items with someone who has a wart
do not share shoes or socks with someone who has a verruca
do not scratch or pick a wart or verruca because it will encourage the HPV to spread to other parts of your body
If you have a wart or verruca, you should cover it up when taking part in communal activities. For example, you should:
wear pool slippers or flip flops in communal changing rooms and showers
cover your wart or verruca with a waterproof plaster or a verruca sock when you go swimming, or while doing physical education at school
wear gloves when using shared gym equipment if you have a wart on your hand