There are lots of different types of bumps that can pop up on your skin. Sure, you know how to handle pimples at home (salicylic acid, FTW!) and you have your derm on speed dial to look at new moles, but what about… warts?
The thing is, warts kind of get a bad rap — it’s always the evil witch who has warts. So if you have warts, your first instinct might be to crawl under the covers and wait until they disappear without anyone ever having to see them. But we’re here to tell you that warts are actually pretty common (and easy to treat!), so there’s really no shame! Here, we’re sharing all you need to know about warts, including what the most common kinds are and how to treat them.
Give it to me straight. What are warts?
First things, first: Warts are totally benign, meaning they aren’t cancerous. Whew, good news! They’re a type of growth that show up on our skin after the surface of your skin becomes infected with HPV — human papillomavirus infection. Usually, warts are flesh-toned and rough, but sometimes they can be darker in color (think brown or grayish-black) with a smooth texture.
Wait… HPV is a skin infection? I thought it was an STD!
We know you’ve heard of HPV before — in fact, it’s the most commonly transmitted sexually transmitted disease. That’s only part of the story, though. There are actually more than 100 types of HPV, but only 40 of those strains are passed via skin-to-skin contact or during sex. You can also get an HPV infection if you have an open wound and you touch a surface (say, the shower floor of your gym’s locker room) that’s been contaminated. This infection then shows up on your body as warts — which you can pass along to others. Sometimes it takes a few months for the warts themselves to show up, but they HPV virus is living on your skin during that time.
Are there different types of warts?
There sure are! Not all warts are the same. Here are some of the most common ones to watch out for.
These warts usually appear on fingers, around our nails, and on the backs of the hands. If you pick at hangnails or bite your nails, you leave yourself susceptible to an infection. These common warts feel rough and may have black dots, which is why they’re also known as seed warts.
Most often found on the soles of the feet, plantar warts are usually flat and grow inward, which happens because walking on them causes pressure. These warts may hurt, and they can even grow in groups.
While common warts are rough, flat warts are smooth, and they’re also smaller than other types of warts. Flat warts can form just about anywhere, although they’re most common on the legs for women and beard area for men. This makes sense, since these are areas that you likely shave regularly, and shaving can leave you with nicks or cuts that open you up to infection. Oh yeah, flat warts can grow in large clusters—anywhere from 20 to 100(!) at a time.
We bet you can guess where you’ll find this type of wart! These skin-colored bumps show up around the vagina, cervix, or anus in women. While they’re less common in men, they can still occur, typically on the tip of the penis, around the anus, or in your thigh or groin area. Using condoms is a great way to curb your risk of getting genital warts, although it’s not 100% foolproof. If you are diagnosed with genital warts, you should see your gynecologist and inform your sexual partner ASAP — certain types of HPV can cause cervical cancer, which is easily diagnosed with a pap smear.
How do I get rid of my warts?
If you suspect you have warts, book it to your derm, who will be able to diagnose you by examining your skin. Luckily, most warts are harmless, and most common and plantar warts go away on their own within a year or two. That being said, there are a few treatment options.
These include cryotherapy (i.e. freezing off a wart), electrosurgery and curettage (burning, then cutting off a wart), and cantharidin (a blistering agent). Some derms will treat stubborn warts with injections, and for other difficult-to-treat warts, your doctor may turn to laser treatments, chemical peels (using salicylic acid, glycolic acid, or tretinoin), or immunotherapy, which involves using your immune system to fight back against the warts.
One important fact to note: HPV doesn’t have a cure. That means that warts you’ve treated could still come back, either in the same spot or a new one, in the future.
Is there anything I can do to prevent warts in the first place?
Although warts are easy to treat, we get that they’re something you’d rather not deal with at all if you can avoid them. So, protect yourself by always wearing flip-flops when you head into a public shower, locker room, or are at a pool, don’t touch someone who’s infected, and talk to your sexual partners about their history and always use protection if you’re unsure. Lastly, make sure you don’t pick at any warts you do have, because you could spread them to other areas on your body.
Dr. Ashley Steffens, a dermatology resident at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine (SIU), helped contribute to the accuracy of this story.