Warts—A Common Infectious Disease

Medical Author: Melissa Stoppler, MD
Medical Editor: Barbara K. Hecht, PhD

The warts commonly seen on the skin are caused by a viral infection. The culprit is one of the HPVs (human papillomaviruses) that can be spread from person to person or be acquired through contact with a contaminated surface.

Over 100 types of HPVs have been identified that infect skin or mucous membranes, depending on the virus type. HPV types that infect skin lead to the development of common skin warts.

HPVs have gained widespread attention for their proven role in the development of genital and anal cancers, particularly cancer of the cervix. Specific "high risk" types of HPV that infect the mucosal tissue that lines the genital area are responsible for these carcinogenic (cancer-causing) effects. "High risk" HPVs have also been implicated in the development of a subset of head and neck cancers that develop in the area of the tonsils.

There are also "low risk" HPV types that lead to the development of benign lesions in the genital area, such as genital warts. Some of these HPV types infect skin and cause warts in various locations on the body. Other HPV types cause benign growths, or papillomas, on the vocal cords.

Having an infection with the types of HPV that cause benign skin warts does not increase a person's risk of developing cancer. In other words, the types of virus that cause warts on the skin do NOT cause cancer.

The HPV infection responsible for warts is spread by direct contact with an infected person or through indirect contact from contaminated surfaces such as bathing facilities, clothing, or towels. Since a wart generally appears after a few months or even longer after the infection with HPV, it can be difficult or impossible to determine exactly where and when an HPV infection occurred.

It is also possible for persons to be infected with HPV—and spread the infection to others—without having any evidence of warts themselves. People who have warts in one location of the body can also spread the infection to other body parts.

Although it is virtually impossible to completely prevent infection with HPVs, good hygienic practices can help reduce the chances of developing skin warts:

  • NEVER touch a wart on another person.

  • DO NOT touch, shave, or pick at a wart on yourself (or anyone else).

  • ALWAYS wear shoes or sandals in public locker rooms, shower areas, and around pool facilities.

  • BE SURE that bathing areas are thoroughly cleaned if someone at your home has warts.

  • DO NOT share bath towels with anyone with warts. A person with warts should only use towels once. Wash the towels between uses.

Often, warts will disappear on their own within a year or two due to the actions of the body's immune system. Faster removal of warts is also possible with treatment, and your doctor can advise you about the best treatment options for your case. Topical solutions containing salicylic acid, freezing with liquid nitrogen, and wearing duct tape patches are examples of methods that have been effective in wart removal.

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