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Warts and verrucas: How to treat warts and verrucas

Close up of a doctor administering wart treatment
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Noticed a new lump, bump or cluster on your feet or hands? It’s probably a harmless wart or verruca that will go away on its own. However, if it’s bothering you, you can pop to your local pharmacy to get some over-the-counter treatment.

Warts are small lumps that develop on the skin of the hands and feet. They are caused by various strains of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and most people will experience them at some point in their lives. They can vary in appearance and size and may occur as a single lump or as a cluster.

Some wart types are more likely to affect certain body areas. For example, verrucas are a variety of warts that typically appear on the soles of the feet.

Please note: if you’ve developed growths on your genitals, you’ll need to go to a sexual health clinic, as these types of warts require a specific type of treatment.

In this article, we are going to discuss what warts look like and where they grow, what causes warts, symptoms, types of treatment and how to prevent getting warts and verrucas.

What do warts look like and where do they grow?

Common warts are firm, raised, and rough – they’re often said to have the appearance of a cauliflower. They tend to be the same colour as your skin, but they may be darker or slightly grey. This type of wart normally develops on the hands, so you might notice them on your palms, knuckles, or fingers. They also grow on the knees.

Other types of warts include:

  • Plane warts
  • Mosaic warts
  • Filiform warts
  • Genital warts
  • Plantar warts
  • Periungual warts

Plane warts or flat warts are round and smooth. They are raised but have a flat top and are sometimes yellow in colour. This type of wart tends to grow on the face, the backs of the hands and the legs. Mosaic warts are clusters of warts spread over the feet or hands.

Image of a wart on a man's hand

What causes warts?

Warts are caused by an infection of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). HPV is the name of a very common group of viruses that affect the skin and there are over 100 strains of HPV.

HPV causes warts as the virus triggers the top layer of skin, the epidermis, to produce excess amounts of keratin, a hard protein that is also found in human hair and nails. This extra keratin build-up creates the rough, hard texture that is characteristic of warts.

Types of warts

Warts can vary in appearance and position on the body depending on the type of HPV that has caused them.

 Type Main characteristics
Common warts Common warts are round or oval in shape, raised and firm. They have a rough surface resembling a cauliflower and can be anywhere from 1mm to more than 10mm in size. They can appear anywhere on the body but are most prevalent on the fingers, knuckles, and knees.
Mosaic warts Mosaic warts grow in small, tight clusters. They most commonly affect the hands and the soles of the feet
Plantar warts Often referred to as verrucas, plantar warts develop on the soles of the feet. They tend to be flat and are typically white with a black dot in the centre. They can be painful when pressure is applied to them such as when walking.
Periungual warts Periungual warts form under and around the finger and toenails. They start small but grow into rough bumps that can spread into clusters. They can cause pain and disrupt the normal growth of the nail.
Filiform warts Filiform warts look different to most warts. They are characterised by long, thin threadlike projections that can protrude 10mm or more from the skin. They usually appear on the face, neck, eyelids, and lips.
Genital warts Genital warts are skin-coloured, or whitish growths or lumps that appear around the genital or anal area. They can vary in size and can appear as a singular wart or as a cluster. They are not normally painful but can be itchy.
Plane warts Plane warts are small, flat, smooth, and yellowish in colour. Many can occur at the same time, and they usually affect the face, hands and shins.

 

What do verrucas look like?

Verrucas, or plantar warts, grow on the soles of your feet. They’re quite distinct from the warts listed above as they have tiny black dots in the centre. They also tend to be painful when you put weight on them – the sensation has been described as being like standing on a needle.

What causes verrucas?

Like other warts, verrucas are caused by HPV. Verrucas aren't highly contagious but certain circumstances can increase the risk of infection:

  • Wet environments where bare feet come into contact with HPV-contaminated surfaces such as changing rooms and shower cubicles
  • Close skin contact
  • If you are immunosuppressed

Image of verrucas on the bottom of a foot

Symptoms of warts and verrucas

Apart from the physical appearance of warts and verrucas, they don't usually cause any symptoms. However, some people may also experience the following:

  • Itching
  • Pain or discomfort (more so with verrucas)
  • Embarrassment

Pharmacy treatment for warts and verrucas

Wart treatment usually involves applying salicylic acid to the growth to soften the hard outer layer. The treatment might come as a cream or gel, or as a medicated plaster that sticks to your skin. These treatments are not suitable to use on the face, as salicylic acid can cause irritation and scarring.

Before using wart treatment, it can be helpful to soften the wart by soaking it in water and rubbing it with an emery board or pumice stone – this will remove the hardest skin and allow the treatment to penetrate more deeply.

Most over-the-counter wart treatments have to be used for several months, and there’s not always a guarantee that they’ll work. Ask your pharmacist for advice on what product would be best to use.

Prescription treatment for warts and verrucas

If you need to see a GP for your wart or verruca, they might be able to offer some prescription treatments or refer you to a dermatologist for specialist care.

One treatment option is cryotherapy - this is where the wart is frozen using liquid nitrogen. This process must be repeated every few weeks until the wart falls off. However, as with salicylic acid products, there's no guarantee it will work. It can also be painful and leave scarring.

Another thing to consider is that cryotherapy for warts isn’t always available on the NHS, which means you might have to pay to have it done privately.

Other options for verrucas and warts include surgery and laser therapy, which are normally done under local anaesthetic. Depending on the severity of your warts, you might need to combine this type of procedure with the use of topical treatments.

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How can I avoid getting warts and verrucas in the future?

It’s not always easy to avoid getting a wart, as they’re spread through close skin contact. However, there are a few precautions you can take, including the following:

  • Wear flip-flops in communal showers or around pools – warts are more easily spread when the skin is wet
  • Avoid sharing towels, shoes, and socks
  • Don’t touch warts on another person’s body

If you develop a wart, be careful not to spread it to other people  - always wash your hands after touching it and cover it with a plaster when you go swimming.

Shop wart & verruca treatments

In summary, warts are caused by HPV and whilst not normally harmful or painful, they do present as lumps on the skin. There are different types of warts, and they tend to affect different body areas. They often go away on their own but can be treated with over-the-counter or prescription treatments. Whilst not highly contagious, they can be spread through close skin contact and through touching contaminated surfaces.

If you’d like to learn more about looking after your skin, why not check out our top tips for fighting dry skin, find out what causes skin tags and read our guide to psoriasis? Want to give your feet some TLC instead? Then take a look at our footcare guide.

References

www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/skin-hair-and-nails/warts-and-verrucas
www.nhs.uk/conditions/warts-and-verrucas
www.nhs.uk/conditions/human-papilloma-virus-hpv
www.bupa.co.uk/health-information/healthy-skin/warts-and-verrucas