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What Are Warts?

Warts are small, firm, rough bumps on the skin. They're common in kids and can affect any area of the body. They can be flesh-colored, or lighter or darker than the skin that surrounds them. Sometimes they have tiny black dots in them, which are actually clotted blood vessels. Warts are often seen around the fingernails, on the feet, on the face, and near the knees.

Most warts don't hurt, but ones that are on the soles of the feet or get bumped into a lot can be painful.

What Are the Kinds of Warts?

Types of warts include:

Common warts. A common wart is a small, hard, dome-shaped bump. They're usually found on fingers, hands, knees, and elbows, or at the site of cuts and scratches. They also can form inside the mouth. They have a rough surface that may sometimes look like the head of a cauliflower.

Flat warts. These are about the size of a pinhead, are smoother than other kinds of warts, and have flat tops. Most kids who get flat warts have them on their faces, but they can grow anywhere and can appear in clusters.

Plantar warts. Found on the bottom of the foot, plantar warts can be very uncomfortable, and feel like you're walking on a small stone. They're usually flatter than common warts because walking puts pressure on them and makes them grow inward. Sometimes they're mistaken for callouses.

Filiform warts. These have a finger-like shape, are usually flesh-colored, and often grow on or around the mouth, eyes, or nose.

What Causes Warts?

Warts are caused by an infection with a virus in the human papillomavirus (HPV) family. There are many types of HPV, which can affect different parts of the body. Sometimes warts are sexually transmitted and appear in the genital area. The HPV viruses that cause these are different from the viruses that cause warts on other parts of the body.

HPV viruses that cause warts can pass from person to person through close physical contact or from touching something that a person with a wart touches, like a towel, bathmat, or a shower floor.

Kids who bite their fingernails or pick at hangnails are at risk for warts because they create open areas for a virus to enter and cause a wart. A tiny cut or scratch can put any area of skin at risk for a wart. Also, picking at a wart can spread warts to other parts of the body.

How long warts take to develop can vary. They can grow very slowly and may take weeks or months to develop after someone is exposed to the virus.

How Are Warts Treated?

Warts often go away on their own, but this can take from several months to a couple of years. A doctor can remove a wart if it's painful, interferes with activities because of discomfort, or the person wants it removed.

The different ways of removing warts include:

  • using over-the-counter or prescription medicines to put on the wart
  • burning the wart off using a light electrical current
  • freezing the wart with liquid nitrogen (called cryotherapy)
  • using laser treatment
  • scraping the wart off with a special surgical tool

If your child has a wart, treatment will be based on things like where the wart is and how well your child can tolerate the different options. Sometimes the doctor will recommend a combination of treatments.

The wart may come off more quickly if treated in the doctor’s office, but this might take several visits. If treated at home with over-the-counter remedies, removal can take much longer. Sometimes it takes weeks or months to get results. But eventually the wart should crumble away from the healthy skin.

Wart medicines contain strong chemicals and should be used with care because they can also damage healthy skin. Talk with your doctor before using any over-the-counter wart medicine on the face or genitals.

Wart treatment doesn’t always work. And sometimes a wart can come back because HPV can stay in the body for a while.

How Can Parents Help?

Most warts can be handled at home. Here's how:

  1. Soak the wart in warm water for at least 10 minutes.
  2. Remove dead skin on the wart’s surface by filing with an emery board (that's never going to be used for nails) before applying medicine. Be careful not to file into the normal skin around the wart.
  3. Apply medicine (over-the-counter or prescription) to the wart. Keep the area covered while the medicine works.
  4. Wash your hands after touching the wart.

Tell your child:

  • not to rub, scratch, or pick at the wart becaue this could spread the virus to another part of the body or cause the wart to get infected
  • not to share towels or other personal items with others

You might also have heard that you can use duct tape to remove a wart. Talk to your doctor about whether this type of home treatment is OK for your child.

What Can Help Prevent Warts?

It's not always possible to prevent warts. Avoiding contact with the viruses that cause them is hard because they're so common.

But it can help to avoid sharing things like towels, socks, or shoes. It's always a good idea to teach kids to wash their hands and skin often. If your child has a cut or scratch, use soap and water to clean the area because open wounds are more likely to develop warts and other infections.

Encourage kids to wear waterproof sandals or flip-flops in public showers, locker rooms, and around public pools (to help protect against plantar warts and other infections, like athlete's foot).

When Should I Call the Doctor?

Call your doctor if:

  • Your young child or infant has a wart anywhere on the body.
  • A child (of any age) has a wart on the face, genitals, or rectum.
  • You're not sure if what your child has is a wart.
  • Warts spread to new places on the body.

Also call the doctor if a wart or the skin around it is:

  • painful
  • red
  • bleeding
  • swollen
  • oozing pus

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date Reviewed: Feb 1, 2023

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