Picture this: you're in the shower belting out an Adele ballad, only to pick up your foot to scrub it and find a grainy, callus-looking growth begging for attention. Is it? No, it can't be. But, uh, it totally is...isn't it? Yup, odds are you have a wart.
But before you start to freak out (warts really are NBD), know this: There are tons of wart removal treatments, both done by a doc and ones you can DIY at home. Ahead, experts share exactly how to get rid of warts on your fingers or feet.
What Causes Warts, Exactly?
At its most basic, a wart is a benign skin growth that can develop on different parts of the body, from your private region (yes, as in genital warts) to your toes and fingers, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
"Warts are caused by some strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV). The virus infects the skin cells and causes them to grow into a wart," says Hadley King, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City.
The good news? Warts are not cancerous. The not-so-good news? They're highly contagious and are spread by "contact with other people [with warts] or surfaces where the virus has been," according to Suzanne Friedler, M.D., a board-certified fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology. "Shaking hands, walking barefoot in a public bathroom, or at swimming pools—these are all ways you can get warts," says Dr. Friedler. "Wear sandals, and if at a public swimming pool, wear water shoes!" (Speaking of public pools, here's how to protect yourself from other germy gym spots.)
Because the virus and the pesky bumps it causes are so contagious, it's really hard to prevent warts from spreading and, thus, they're super common. The most common, however, are those caused by HPV1 and HPV2, says Dr. Friedler.
Here's the thing: Since there are so many different strains of HPV (more than 100!), there are many different types of warts. Depending on the version of the virus, the symptoms, location, and appearance will vary. For example, plantar warts are typically found on the ankles and soles of the feet, where they can become rather large and cause pain and tenderness, according to the NIH. Then there are flat warts, which are essentially little brown bumps that form on the face.
Several different strains of HPV can cause the same type of wart, says Dr. King. For example, plantar warts can be caused by HPV 1, 2, and 4. Common warts (which are one of the main types of warts, not just "common" as in typical) are caused by HPV 2 and 7 and can be found anywhere on the body, says Dr. King. This also means that many types of warts can spread from one area to another. Say you have a plantar wart caused by HPV 2; you can spread it from your foot to your hand. That said, if you have HPV (or a wart) on your hand, it's unlikely you'll spread the virus simply by touching a partners' genitals (most cases of genital warts are from "genital to genital contact" or unprotected sex), according to recent research. (Related: 5 Contagious Skin Conditions You Should Definitely Try to Prevent)
What Should You Do If You Have a Wart?
First thing's first: Consulting a doctor—typically a dermatologist—is key, especially before trying any at-home remedies (more on that below). And do so as quickly as possible, says Dr. Friedler. "The earlier the treatment, the better," she says. "The longer it has been growing, the longer it will take to remove." And if you have genital warts, you should see your ob-gyn. (Related: How to Decode Skin Conditions, Rashes, and Bumps On Your Vagina)
Meanwhile, you should make a conscious effort to prevent spreading: Don't scratch or pick at it, wear clean socks every day, and wash your hands thoroughly any time you touch the wart, according to the NIH. To steer clear of becoming infected in the first place (and going forward if you're already ~with wart~), remember to clean and cover any cuts, prevent dry or cracked skin, and avoid biting your nails and cuticles, since it's easier for HPV to get inside via these little nicks and openings, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). And, pretty please, wash your hands.
The removal process can also be more challenging when dealing with certain types of warts. Specifically, if you're wondering how to get rid of plantar warts, just know that it might be a tougher process, according to Dr. Friedler. That's because the pressure from walking on them (remember: plantar warts are often on the bottom of your feet) can push them further inward, she explains. (Foot pain but no plantar warts? Plantar fasciitis might be to blame, but these exercises should help.)
How to Remove Warts In a Doctor's Office
Your Best Option: Liquid Nitrogen (Cryosurgery)
"The gold standard for treatment—the best wart removal—is in a medical office using liquid nitrogen," says Dr. Friedler. "The viral cells are much more sensitive to the cold than your healthy skin cells."
This process, which is also called cryosurgery, is not as scary as it sounds. "The most well-established treatments are salicylic acid [more on that below] and liquid nitrogen," says Dr. King. "Liquid nitrogen freezes the skin cells infected with the wart virus; ice crystals form and the cells die. Both these treatments help to debulk the wart and they also can cause local irritation and inflammation that may help your immune system detect the wart."
Liquid nitrogen is a doctor-only thing. It's not the cryotherapy or cold tank you'd see in a recovery studio or gym, and "it's certainly not the one you get over the counter at the drugstore—those are not [as] effective," says Dr. Friedler. Rather, this wart-removing liquid nitrogen is much, much colder than something you'd get at a drugstore, she says.
"A spray device or cotton tip applicator is used to cool the wart and small area of surrounding skin to -196 degrees celsius," explains Caren Campbell, M.D., F.A.A.D., a San Francisco-based dermatologist. This method freezes the virally-infected skin cells quickly and "then allows them to slowly thaw, which kills or destroys the virally infected cells," she says.
Although this "surgery" doesn't require anesthesia, it can feel a little uncomfortable. "It feels so cold it burns or stings for most patients, but the skin rewarms in 1-2 minutes and the stinging resolves. No anesthesia is required and most patients tolerate it well," says Dr. Cambell.
Prescription Creams and Medicines
If you're dealing with a difficult case of widespread warts, your doc might prescribe a topical treatment like Imiquimod, a cream that's applied to help activate your immune system, says Dr. King. "This works better for genital warts and not as well for warts in other areas like the hands and feet because the skin is thicker and it isn't absorbed well through the thicker skin."
A medicine called cimetidine may also be effective in treating warts, even though it's indicated for treating heartburn. "This is reserved for cases that are difficult to treat," said Dr. Campbell. So don't go into your doc's office expecting this as the first line of defense; this it's a good option for you, your doctor will bring it up.
"Another option, particularly for stubborn warts on the hands and feet, is to inject a small amount of candida antigen into or near the wart," said Dr. King. "This is basically a solution of inactive parts of yeast that are recognized by your immune system, so it brings an immune reaction into the area. Ideally, while your immune system is there, it will also recognize the wart virus and fight it off as well."
This in-office treatment is "more aggressive," and can be helpful if you have multiple warts in an area, says Dr. Campbell. "Even injecting one or two warts can mount an immune response that then gets the others (that were not injected) to resolve," she says.
How to Remove Warts At Home
As for how to get rid of warts on hands, fingers, and feet at home? "There's some evidence suggesting that treatments like salicylic acid and apple cider vinegar treatments can help expedite healing times; however, as with most homemade treatments, it's best to leave it to a professional," says Salar Parvini, D.C., a chiropractor who used his biochemistry knowledge to develop Saffron and Sage Skincare.
Your Best Option: Salicylic Acid
When it comes to OTC home remedies, many topical serums and wart removal patches have salicylic acid as the main active ingredient. (It's also a miracle worker when it comes to blackheads.) "Salicylic acid helps remove outer layers of skin on the top of the wart," says Dr. King. This process is called "debulking."
"Salicylic acid is the best OTC, at-home option for treating warts," says Dr. Campbell, who recommends Mediplast (Buy It, $29, walgreens.com). "Mediplast is 40-percent salicylic acid, and the highest OTC concentration option. I advise patients to cut the plaster paper to fit the wart and leave it on the site until it falls off. Once it falls off, use a wart designated pumice stone or emery board and file off the excess dead skin (do not use it elsewhere as you could spread the wart virus, only use it on the wart)."
Another one of the home remedies for warts may be a supplement. If your warts aren't responding to other treatments, research suggests that taking up to 600mg of zinc per day can help treat stubborn warts, according to Dr. King. Just be aware, however, that zinc might cause an upset stomach, so if your gut starts to hurt, this treatment might not be for you. And, as always, check with your doctor before taking any supplements, as they're not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and can interact with any prescription medications you're taking. (Related: Are Dietary Supplements Really Safe?)
Wondering how to get rid of warts on your fingers? "Duct tape is sometimes effective," says Dr. King. "The idea is to put it on and leave it on for a while to cause irritation enough to bring in the immune system and then, once there, hopefully, it will recognize and help fight off the wart virus."
This DIY wart treatment, however, is more of a debulking method than an effective way to remove all of the virally infected cells, says Dr. Friedler. That's because it simply can't get "deep enough to cure the wart." (Related: The Problem with DIY Skin Care That No One Is Talking About)
How Long After Treatment Will a Wart Go Away?
Unfortunately, there's no concrete answer; it depends on the person and the type of wart.
"In my experience, treating warts, particularly on the hands and feet, can be an ongoing project for several months, because they're difficult to get rid of," says Dr. King. "The wart virus invades skin cells and until you've gotten rid of every last cell that has the virus in it, it's likely to grow back. And HPV has evolved many techniques to help it evade our immune system."
Where the wart is located adds another level of difficulty to the removal process. The thicker the skin (think: palms, soles of the feet), the more stubborn the wart. "Warts on the soles tend to be the most difficult of all, perhaps because of the weight-bearing nature of these areas, cells infected with the virus can be quite deep into the skin," says Dr. King, who recommends combining at-home and in-office wart treatments like liquid nitrogen.
That being said, if you're lucky enough, your wart might actually resolve all by itself. "It depends on how strong your immune system is," explains Dr. Friedler. If you have a strong immune system and you tend to fight off viruses easily, you may have an easier time warding off warts. All the more reason to keep up with immune-boosting tactics such as regular exercise, ample sleep, and a balanced diet. (Want more tips? Check out these medicine-free ways to boost your immune system.)