Common skin conditions

Warts on fingers

The facts behind five common skin problems and the treatments available.

Warts

Most people develop a wart at some stage in their life, usually by the age of 20. 

What are they?

Warts are flesh-coloured lumps, which can be 1mm to more than 1cm across. Warts can appear anywhere, but usually affect the hands and feet. A wart on the foot is called a verruca. Genital warts appear around the genitals or anus.

What causes warts?

They are caused by infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV), which can be passed on through skin-to-skin contact and sometimes through surfaces such as floors and towels. If you have a wart, you can spread it to other people through close contact. You can also spread it to other parts of your own body.

What's the treatment?

Most warts go away by themselves, but this can take up to two years. Treatments include:

  • over-the-counter creams and gels (not for use on genital warts) – ask your pharmacist which ones may be suitable for you 
  • prescription chemicals to be dabbed on to the wart
  • cryotherapy (freezing), which should be carried out by a practitioner trained in cryotherapy
  • surgery and laser treatment, but these are not commonly used

There is limited evidence that duct tape placed over the wart can be effective.

These treatments may be painful and the warts may come back.

Do I need to see a doctor?

See your GP if the wart is bothering you, if you want your GP to treat it, or if treatments from the pharmacy have not worked. If you have genital warts, it's important to go to your GP or a genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic so you can be given appropriate treatment.

Find out more about treating warts.

Find out more about the symptoms of skin tags and how they're treated

Impetigo

Impetigo is common in babies and children, but can affect anyone. It usually develops on the face and hands. In babies it affects the nappy area.

What is it?

Impetigo is an infection in the skin. Small blisters appear and burst, leaving yellow, moist, itchy patches that dry to a crust. The skin underneath can be red and inflamed.

What causes impetigo?

It is caused by bacteria that enter the skin through a cut, scratch or damage from an existing skin condition, such as eczema. Impetigo can be spread by direct contact and sharing towels or bedding with someone who has it.

What's the treatment?

Impetigo is likely to clear up by itself within three weeks. However, it's very contagious, so antibiotic cream or tablets should be used to get rid of it quickly.

Do I need to see a doctor?

See your GP for a diagnosis and to prescribe antibiotics. Most people are not contagious after 48 hours of treatment or once their sores have dried. It's sensible for children not to go to school or nursery until they are no longer contagious.

Find out more about treatment for impetigo.

Read Marilyn's story of her young son's impetigo.

Psoriasis

Psoriasis affects 2% of people in the UK. It usually begins between the ages of 11 and 45. Psoriasis runs in families, and one-third of people with psoriasis have a close relative with the condition. Psoriasis is not infectious.

What is it?

Psoriasis causes flaky, red patches on the skin. They can look shiny and cause itching or burning. They can be anywhere, but are more common on elbows, knees and the lower back.

What causes psoriasis?

Some of the body's antibodies attack skin cells by mistake, causing them to reproduce too quickly and build up on the skin. Certain things may make symptoms worse, including alcohol, smoking and some medicines, such as anti-inflammatories (for example, ibuprofen) and beta-blockers (used to treat heart problems). It is not passed on through close contact.

What's the treatment?

Treatments to reduce the patches depend on their severity. They include:

  • creams containing vitamin D or vitamin A
  • steroid creams
  • tar preparations
  • exposing the skin to ultraviolet (UV) light
  • medication taken by mouth or injection

Do I need to see a doctor?

Most people are treated by their GP, but some are referred to a dermatologist (skin specialist).

Find out more about treatment for psoriasis.

Read about Ray's experience of psoriasis.

Ringworm

Ringworm is common in children, but can affect anyone. It appears on the head, body, groin, feet, nails or beard area.

What is it?

Ringworm is not a worm, but a number of fungal infections that grow in a patch or circle on the skin. It can be a few millimetres to a few centimetres across. The patches or circles look red or silvery and can blister and ooze.

What causes ringworm?

Fungal spores enter the skin through a break, such as a scratch or a patch of eczema. Ringworm can be passed on through direct contact and sharing items such as towels, bedding or combs. It can also be passed on from the floor of shower or swimming pool areas. Pets can pass it to people.

What's the treatment?

Antifungal creams, powders or tablets, available from the pharmacy, can be effective.

Do I need to see a doctor?

See your GP if you aren't sure if it's ringworm, or if the infection has not responded to pharmacy treatment after two weeks.

Find out about the symptoms of ringworm.

Vitiligo

One in 100 people in the UK develops vitiligo. It can occur at any age, but more than half of cases begin before the age of 20. It affects men and women of any skin colour. Vitiligo is not infectious.

What is it?

Vitiligo causes pale white patches on the skin. These patches can occur anywhere, but are more noticeable on areas that are exposed to sunlight, such as the face and hands, and on dark or tanned skin. On the scalp, vitiligo can cause hair to turn white. Patches can be small or large, stay the same size, or grow. Vitiligo cannot be passed on through close contact.

What causes vitiligo?

It is caused by a lack of melanocyte cells, which colour the skin. These cells can be missing because:

  • the immune system isn't working properly and attacks them
  • the skin has come into contact with certain chemicals or has been severely sunburnt

Vitiligo is also linked to having an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism). 

What's the treatment?

Treatment aims to restore skin colour and control the spread of vitiligo. Treatment can include:

  • steroid creams
  • ultraviolet A (UVA) light
  • disguising the patches with coloured creams, some of which are available on prescription 

If vitiligo affects more than 50% of the skin, treatment may involve lightening the healthy skin using prescription creams. It's important that this treatment is carried out under the supervision of a doctor.

Creams that you can buy without a prescription that claim to lighten skin can contain harmful chemicals, so don't use them.

Find out more about the risks of skin lightening.

Do I need to see a doctor?

See your GP to confirm the diagnosis and prescribe treatment.

Find out more about treatment for vitiligo.

Read Elena's story of life with vitiligo.

Psoriasis

Psoriasis is a skin condition that affects around 2% of people in the UK. A skin expert describes the impact psoriasis can have on quality of life and the treatment options available.

Media last reviewed: 04/12/2012

Next review due: 04/12/2014

Page last reviewed: 10/06/2014

Next review due: 09/06/2016

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