Warts are small, benign growths caused by a viral infection of the skin or mucous membrane. The virus infects the surface layer. The viruses that cause warts are members of the human papilloma virus (HPV) family. Warts are not cancerous but some strains of HPV, usually not associated with warts, have been linked with cancer formation. Warts are contagious from person to person and from one area of the body to another on the same person.

Particularly common among children, young adults, and women, warts are a problem for 7-10% of the population. There are close to 60 types of HPV that cause warts, each preferring a specific skin location. For instance, some types of HPV cause warts to grow on the skin, others cause them to grow inside the mouth, while still others cause them to grow on the genital and rectal areas.However, most can be active anywhere on the body. The virus enters through the skin and produces new warts after an incubation period of one to eight months. Warts are usually skin-colored and feel rough to the touch, but they alsocan be dark, flat, and smooth.

Warts are passed from person to person, directly and indirectly. Some peopleare continually susceptible to warts, while others are more resistant to HPVand seldom get them. The virus takes hold more readily when the skin has beendamaged in some way, which may explain why children who bite their nails tend to have warts located on their fingers. People who take a medication to suppress their immune system or are on long-term steroid use are also prone to awart virus infection. This same is true for patients with AIDS.

    The more common types of warts include:
  • Common hand warts
  • Foot warts
  • Flat warts
  • Genital warts.

Common hand warts grow around the nails, on the fingers, and on the backs ofhands. They appear more frequently where skin is broken, such as in areas where fingernails are bitten or hangnails picked.

Foot warts are called plantar warts because the word plantar is the medical term for the sole of the foot, the area where the wart usually appears as a single lesion or as a cluster. Plantar warts, however, do not stick up above the surface like common warts. The ball of the foot, the heel and the plantar part of the toes are the most likely locations for the warts because the skinin those areas is subject to the most weight, pressure and irritation, makinga small break or crack more likely.

Flat warts tend to grow in great numbers and are smaller and smoother than other warts. They can erupt anywhere, appearing more frequently on the legs ofwomen, the faces of children, and on the areas of the face that are shaved byyoung adult males.

Genital warts, also called condyloma acuminata or venereal warts, are one ofthe most common causes of sexually transmitted disease (STD) in this country.According to the Journal of the American Medical Association's STD Information Center, they are contracted by sexual contact with an infected person who carries HPV and are more contagious than other warts. It is estimatedthat two-thirds of the people who have sexual contact with a partner with genital warts will develop the disease within three months of contact. As a result, about one million new cases of genital warts are diagnosed in the UnitedStates each year.

Genital warts tend to be small flat bumps or they may be thin and tall. Theyare usually soft and not scaly like other warts. In women, genital warts appear on the genitalia, within the vagina, on the cervix, and around the anus orwithin the rectum. In men, genital warts usually appear on the tip of the penis but may also be found on the scrotum or around the anus. Genital warts can also develop in the mouth of a person who has had oral sexual contact withan infected person. Patients who notice warts in their genital area should see a doctor. The doctor may be able to diagnose the warts with a simple examination. If the warts are small, the doctor may put a vinegar-like liquid on the skin, which makes the warts turn white and easier to see, and then use a magnifying glass to look for them.

Many of the nonprescription wart remedies available at drug stores will remove simple warts from hands and fingers. These medications may be lotions, ointments, or plasters and work by chemically removing the skin that was affectedby the wart virus. The chemicals are strong, however, and should be used with care since they can remove healthy as well as infected skin. These solutions should be avoided by diabetics and those with cardiovascular or other circulatory disorders whose skin may be insensitive and not appreciate irritation.

Physicians should be consulted if there are no signs of progress after a month of self treatment. Doctors have many ways of removing warts, including using stronger topically applied chemicals than those available in drugstores. Asecond method of removal is freezing or cryosurgery on the wart using liquidnitrogen. Cryotherapy is relatively inexpensive, does not require anesthesia,and usually does not result in scarring.

Genital warts are the most difficult to treat. They can be removed, but the viral infection itself cannot be cured. Often, because the warts are so small,more than one treatment may be needed. The virus continues to live in the deeper skin, which is why warts often return after they have been removed. Strong chemicals may be applied as well as surgical excision with or without electrocautery.

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