Warts usually clear up without treatment. However, it can sometimes take up to two years for the HPV virus to leave your system and for warts to disappear.
The length of time it takes for a wart to disappear will vary from person to person. They tend to last longer in older children and adults.
In adults and people with a weakened immune system, warts are less likely to clear up on their own or respond well to treatment.
Leaving the wart to get better by itself is one option. However, you may want to consider treatment if your wart is painful, in an awkward position, or is causing you distress or embarrassment.
There are a number of treatments available for warts. However, no single treatment is 100% effective, and sometimes the wart may return.
The aim of treatment is to remove the wart without it returning and without leaving any scarring.
Surgery to treat warts is not usually recommended because warts often return and further treatment is required.
Some treatments may cause side effects such as mild pain, blistering and skin irritation around the wart.
These various treatments are described below.
Many treatments, such as creams, gels, paints and medicated plasters, are available over-the-counter from pharmacies.
Salicylic acid is the active ingredient in most of these treatments. In two-thirds of cases, research has shown that hand warts clear up within 12 weeks of treatment with salicylic acid.
There is limited evidence available to show which type of salicylic acid treatment (ointment, cream or gel) is most effective. However, it has been shown that salicylic acid is effective at treating warts.
Salicylic acid and other wart treatments also destroy healthy skin, so it is important to protect your skin before applying the treatment. You can use petroleum jelly or a corn plaster to cover the skin around the wart.
Before applying the treatment to your wart, use a rough surface, such as an emery board or pumice stone, to get rid of any excess skin around the affected area (avoid sharing the pumice stone with others). Soak the wart in water for about five minutes to soften the skin.
After soaking your wart, follow the instructions that come with the medication. You may need to apply the treatment daily for 12 weeks or longer. You should stop the treatment if your skin becomes sore and seek advice from your GP or pharmacist.
Do not use treatments that contain salicylic acid to treat warts on your face. Ask your GP or pharmacist for advice about the best type of treatment.
Also consult your GP before using over-the-counter treatments that contain salicylic acid if you have poor circulation – for example, if you have a condition such as diabetes or peripheral vascular disease. This is because there is an increased risk of damage to your skin, nerves and tendons.
In cryotherapy liquid nitrogen is sprayed onto your wart to freeze and destroy the affected skin cells. After treatment, a sore blister will form, followed by a scab which will fall off 7-10 days later.
Cryotherapy usually takes 5-15 minutes and it can be painful. Large warts sometimes need to be frozen a number of times, a week or so apart, before they clear up.
The exact method of cryotherapy may differ between healthcare professionals. Liquid nitrogen may be sprayed directly onto the wart or may be applied using a stick with cotton wool on the tip. This method is often preferred for treatment around the eyes or for small children.
Cryotherapy may be recommended if you have a wart on your face. This is because the risk of irritation is lower than when using salicylic acid or duct tape.
Cryotherapy is not usually recommended to treat young children because they may find the treatment too painful, or it may be difficult for them to stay in the same position while having the treatment.
Possible side effects of cryotherapy include:
- pain and blistering
- your skin may become darker (hyperpigmentation) or lighter (hypopigmentation), particularly if you have black skin
- your nails may develop an abnormal change in shape or structure if cryotherapy is used to treat warts that develop under the nails (periungual warts)
Cryotherapy is sometimes carried out at GP surgeries or at hospital skincare clinics. However, it may not be available on the NHS in all areas of the country.
A very cold spray (dimethyl-ether/propane) is also available from pharmacies, which you can apply yourself. You should avoid using this spray on your face. There is a lack of evidence to support the effectiveness of dimethyl-ether/propane spray compared with cryotherapy with liquid nitrogen.
Treatment with duct tape involves placing a piece of duct tape over your wart for about six days. If the tape falls off, simply replace it with a fresh piece. After six days, remove the tape and soak the wart in water.
After soaking the wart, use an emery board or pumice stone to get rid of any rough areas. Leave the wart uncovered over night and apply a new piece of duct tape the following morning. This procedure should be repeated for a period of up to two months.
There is limited evidence to support the effectiveness of using duct tape to treat warts. However, side effects of this type of treatment are rare, although in some cases skin irritation may occur.
Warts can also be treated using chemical treatments available on prescription. The treatments contain chemicals such as:
These chemicals are dabbed on the warts to kill affected skin cells.
Potential side effects of chemical treatments include:
- staining the skin brown (with glutaraldehyde)
- intense swelling (with podophyllin)
- infection following treatment (with podophyllin)
Treating warts during pregnancy
If you are pregnant and have warts, your GP may recommend using salicylic acid, cryotherapy or duct tape.
Salicylic acid can be used to treat warts during pregnancy as long as it is used on a small area for a limited period of time.