Warts are hard, noncancerous lumps on your skin. They’re caused by some types of the human papillomavirus (HPV) infecting the top level of your skin.
The virus that causes them can be passed from person to person or from a surface to a person. It’s also possible for warts to spread from one part of your body to another.
There are several different types of warts, including:
- common warts
- flat warts
- plantar warts
- filiform warts
- genital warts (caused by a different type of HPV than the others)
All types of warts are contagious.
Warts can affect any body part, but are most common on fingers, hands, and feet. Filiform warts often grow on the face.
Warts are usually harmless and not painful. However, they may cause discomfort if they’re in places like the bottom of your foot or a finger you use often.
One way that warts can spread is from an infected person to another person. While you won’t necessarily always get a wart if you touch someone else’s wart, it’s one way to get the HPV virus.
Different immune systems react differently to HPV. You might get a wart if you come in contact with an infected person, or you might not.
The strains of HPV that cause warts are very common, and almost everyone is exposed at some point, but some people will never develop warts. The length of time it takes for a wart to grow can also vary from person to person.
Having a cut or scratch in the area that touches another person’s wart makes it more likely the warts will spread. This is one reason warts are more common in children, who tend to be more prone to minor injuries.
The certain type of HPV that causes genital warts is spread only through sexual contact. You get it through skin-to-skin sexual contact — vaginal, anal, or oral — with someone who is infected.
This virus different from other types of HPV, so you can’t get genital warts if someone with a wart on their hand or finger touches your genitals.
There is a vaccine against strains of HPV that cause most genital warts, but not against other strains that cause non-genital warts.
Warts can spread from one part of your body to another, similarly to person-to-person spread. If you pick at, touch, or scratch a wart on one part of your body, then do the same to another body part, the warts can spread to the second body part.
Shaving can also spread warts, because it makes scraped or open skin more likely.
You can get warts if you touch certain surfaces that a person with an active infection touched. You can also get warts if you share personal items like towels or razors. This is because HPV can be hard to kill with disinfectants.
You’re more likely to get HPV from wet surfaces, such as pool areas, shared showers, or a towel an infected person has used.
You can get plantar warts, which are warts on the bottom of your foot, from walking barefoot in a place where someone with plantar warts has also walked barefoot.
It’s not possible to fully protect yourself from picking up HPV and developing warts if you are susceptible to them. However, there are some ways you can try to prevent the spread of warts.
To help prevent person-to-person spread:
- Clean your hands regularly.
- Disinfect cuts and keep them clean and dry.
- Don’t touch other people’s warts.
To help prevent warts from spreading to other parts of your body:
- Don’t scratch or pick at your warts.
- Keep your warts dry.
- Try to avoid your warts while shaving.
- Consider covering your warts.
- Don’t use tools like a nail file or nail clipper on both your warts and on unaffected skin.
To help prevent surface-to-person spread:
- Wear shoes in public places like pools, gym locker rooms, and showers.
- Clean any surfaces that have come in contact with warts, whether your own or someone else’s.
- Don’t share towels or other personal items.
Most warts go away on their own. However, it can take about six months to two years for warts to go away.
If your warts are painful, interfere with your daily activities, or you find them upsetting, you can get them removed. A salicylic acid, over-the-counter (OTC) medication is one option. This medication usually takes at least several weeks of use to see results.
See your doctor if:
- an OTC treatment doesn’t work
- you have a lot of warts
- the warts hurt or itch
- you think the growth might not be a wart
- you have a weakened immune system
Doctors have several options for wart removal, including:
- Freezing the wart off. This is also called cryotherapy. It’s the most common method of wart removal.
- Burning off the wart using an electric current.
- Using chemicals that cause the warts to peel off your healthy skin.
- Using a laser to remove the warts. This isn’t a commonly used treatment.
- In rare cases, surgically removing the warts. This is usually not recommended and is used only if your warts have not responded to other treatments.
Getting rid of a wart doesn’t cure the HPV that caused the wart. Therefore, warts can come back either in the same place or a different spot. Eventually, your body will clear the HPV virus. However, it’s possible to get HPV and warts more than once.