Warts and verrucas

Warts are small rough lumps or growths on your skin. They are known as verrucas when they are on your feet.

Key points about warts

  1. Warts are very common and are usually harmless.
  2. Warts can be rounded or flat and appear as a single wart or in cluster. Some can be itchy or painful.
  3. They can appear on different parts of your body.
  4. They are caused by strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV).
  5. Warts usually go away without treatment, but treatments are available if they are painful, spreading or you don’t like they way they look.

What are the different types of warts?

There are different types of warts. These look different and appear on different parts of your body.

Common types of warts include:

  • common warts
  • plantar warts, also known as verrucas
  • plane warts
  • filiform warts.

Name

Location and appearance

Common warts

Common warts are usually found on the backs of your fingers or toes, around your nails and on your knees. They sometimes look like a tiny cauliflower.

Verrucas or plantar warts

Verrucas or plantar warts are found on the soles of your feet. They grow into your foot and can be quite painful when you stand or walk. 

Plane warts

Plane warts have a flat surface. They are often found in clusters and tend to appear in a line. They are most commonly found on your face, hands and shins.

Filiform warts

Filiform warts are on a long stalk like a finger or thread. They commonly appear on your face.


See more images of warts on the DermNet NZ website.

What causes warts?

Warts are caused by different strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV). The strains of HPV that cause harmless warts on your hands, legs or feet are different to those that cause genital warts and cervical cancer.  

Warts happen when HPV virus infects the top layer of your skin and causes your skin cells to grow very fast. Sometimes just one or two warts develop on your skin. They may also grow in a cluster of several warts in the same area.

Anyone can get warts, but people who are more likely to get warts include:

  • school-aged children
  • people who have dermatitis
  • people who have broken skin from cuts, scrapes, hangnails or bitten nails 
  • swimmers and others who spend more time in warm, damp places such as showers, changing rooms and swimming pools
  • people with poor immunity or who are on long-term immunosuppressant medicines such as azathioprine or cyclosporin.

What are the symptoms of warts?

Warts are lumps, bumps or growths that range in size from a few millimetres to over a centimetre. They:

  • are usually skin-coloured, although some may be darker
  • can be rough, grainy, flat, rounded, finger-like or cauliflower-like 
  • appear as a single wart or appear in cluster with many of them together
  • may have an overlying callus (hard skin)
  • may be itchy or painful, especially verrucas (which are found on the soles of your feet).

See your GP or doctor if you have any of the following:

  • concern about a wart of any growth or lump on your skin
  • a wart that keeps coming back despite treatment
  • a wart starts to bleed or changes in the way it looks.

How are warts diagnosed?

Warts can be diagnosed by just looking at your skin and feeling it. Tests are not usually needed. Occasionally a sample of your skin may be taken for testing if your doctor your doctor is concerned about another cause for your symptoms.

How are warts treated?

Warts are usually harmless and go away without treatment but it may take months or years. For example, in children, half of warts disappear without treatment within 6 months, and 90% (9 in 10) are gone within 2 years. If your warts don’t cause any problems, you don't need to treat them.

Treatment can be helpful if warts are painful, spread too much or you don’t like the way they look. However, treatment can be uncomfortable and may need to be continued for several months.    

Some of the treatments used to treat warts include:

  • topical paints or gels
  • cryotherapy or freezing treatment
  • other treatments such as surgery.

Topical paints or gels

Topical paints or gels contain salicylic acid. You can buy these from your pharmacy.

  • They are usually applied directly onto the wart once a day for several weeks.
  • They work by removing the dead surface skin cells.
  • They can cause skin soreness or irritation during treatment.
  • About 70% of warts (7 out of every 10) improve within 12 weeks of daily applications.

It is important to carefully follow the instructions on the packaging because applying these treatments to normal skin around the wart can cause skin burn. 

Cryotherapy or freezing treatment 

This is when liquid nitrogen is sprayed or applied to the wart. Liquid nitrogen is very cold and the freezing and thawing destroys the wart.

  • It is normally repeated every 2–3 weeks.
  • Freezing treatment is quite uncomfortable and may cause blistering of your skin for a few days or weeks.
  • About 70% (7 out of every 10) of warts improve after 3–4 months of regular freezing.
  • A hard freeze using liquid nitrogen might cause a permanent white mark or scar. It can also cause temporary numbness.

Other treatments

If the above treatment options don’t clear your warts, other methods such as surgery or laser treatment may be helpful. These treatments are usually done by specialists and only if other options have failed.

How can I prevent warts?

Warts are not very contagious, but they can be spread by close contact with someone who has them. The HPV virus can also be passed on to someone else by touching shared objects or surfaces, such as the area surrounding a swimming pool or shower, towels, razors or other personal items. If you already have warts they can spread by scratching or touching the wart and then touching a different body area.

Some ways to prevent yourself from getting or spreading warts include:

Do's

  • Do wear jandals or slippers in showers at pools or gyms.
  • Do wash your hands after touching warts.
  • Do change your socks daily if you have verrucas or plantar warts.
  • Do cover your warts and verrucas with a plaster when swimming.
  • Do take care to not cut warts when shaving.

Don'ts

  • Don't scratch your warts and then bite your nails or put your finger in your mouth.
  • Don't share towels, socks or shoes.

Learn more

The following links provide further information on warts and verrucas. Be aware that websites from other countries may contain information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.

Viral warts DermNet NZ
Warts Podiatry NZ
Warts and verrucas HealthInfo Canterbury, NZ
Warts KidsHealth NZ
Warts Better Health Channel, Australia
Warts and verrucas Patient Info, UK
Warts and verrucas NHS, UK 

References

  1. Warts and verrucas Auckland Regional HealthPathways, NZ, 2019
  2. Viral warts DermNet NZ

Reviewed by

Dr Alice Miller trained as a GP in the UK and has been working in New Zealand since 2013. She has undertaken extra study in diabetes, sexual and reproductive healthcare, and skin cancer medicine. Alice has a special interest in preventative health and self-care, which she is building on by studying for the Diploma of Public Health with the University of Otago in Wellington.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Alice Miller, FRNZCGP, Wellington Last reviewed: 03 Jul 2021