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What are the treatment options for warts?

Created: ; Last Update: May 4, 2017; Next update: 2020.

Warts are usually harmless and generally go away on their own after a few weeks or months. But they can be bothersome and unattractive. They may also be painful, especially on the feet. Various treatments can help warts go away faster.

Warts are caused by human papillomaviruses (HPV), of which there are more than 100 different types. Warts are most common on your hands, feet, and face. They may also appear in the genital and anal area. This information does not cover the treatment of genital warts.

Warts are particularly common in children and teenagers. They usually appear alone and often go away without treatment after a few weeks or months. So a lot of people decide not to have them treated and instead just wait until they disappear.

But some people are unhappy and embarrassed about their warts, especially if they’re on a part of their body that others can easily see. And some have had a lot of warts for a long time. Many of them want an effective treatment.

There are a number of different treatments that can improve the chances of getting rid of warts faster, but they do not always work. Warts on the soles of the feet are particularly hard to treat because they are sometimes pushed inward. No treatments have been proven to work here. Also, new warts may grow again after successful treatment because there might still be viruses in the skin cells.

Warts are often treated with a salicylic acid solution or cryotherapy. These are also the best-studied treatments.

How effective is salicylic acid in treating warts?

Salicylic acid solution is applied to the skin several times per day over a number of weeks. The solution forms a thin layer over the wart. This layer is removed before the solution is used again. If possible, the top layer of the wart is also carefully removed. Most salicylic acid solutions are available over the counter at the pharmacy. Some of these products also contain lactic acid.

An analysis of studies on the effectiveness of salicylic acid solutions showed that they are effective. The following was found after three to six months:

  • Without salicylic acid: About 25 out of 100 people who used a placebo (fake treatment) no longer had any warts after the treatment.
  • With salicylic acid: About 39 out of 100 people who used salicylic acid no longer had any warts.

So the salicylic acid treatment helped about 14 out of 100 people to get rid of their warts faster.

Salicylic acid solutions are generally well tolerated. Mild skin irritation is common. In rare cases the skin may become discolored or hurt.

Filing the top layer of the wart during treatment may cause a little pain or slight bleeding.

How effective is cryotherapy?

In cryotherapy, the dermatologist "freezes the wart off" by applying liquid nitrogen to it. This substance is extremely cold and destroys the cells in the top layer of skin. There are different ways of applying the liquid nitrogen. It is often done by dipping a cotton swab in the liquid nitrogen and then holding it against the wart for several seconds. This treatment is repeated several times, with breaks of at least one week between each session. The nitrogen may also be sprayed onto the wart using a small nozzle. Cryotherapy can make warts on the hands go away more quickly. A review of studies showed the following results after three months:

  • Without cryotherapy: About 13 out of 100 people no longer had any warts
  • With cryotherapy: About 49 out of 100 people no longer had any warts.

But cryotherapy wasn't found to be more effective than waiting (no treatment) when used for the treatment of warts on the soles of the feet.

Side effects

Cryotherapy usually hurts a bit, and it often leaves a blister. Sometimes it also causes scarring, but any scars are usually hardly visible after a while. Mild skin irritation or discoloration occasionally occur.

People who have diabetic foot problems or peripheral arterial disease shouldn't have cryotherapy for warts. This is because the treatment could lead to things like nerve damage or poorly healing wounds on their feet. People with Raynaud's disease are also advised not to have this treatment.

Over-the-counter wart-removal pens are also available and can be used at home. They don't get as cold as the liquid nitrogen treatment used at the doctor’s. Their effectiveness has not yet been put to the test in scientific studies.

The U.S. regulatory agency FDA issued a warning that cryogenic wart-remover pens contain flammable substances, and that there have been some cases of burns while using them.

How do salicyclic acid treatment and cryotherapy compare?

A number of studies have looked into whether one of the two treatments (cryotherapy or salicylic acid) is more effective than the other. Most of them didn't find any significant differences.

The success of wart treatments can depend on a number of different factors, including how long the wart is frozen for and how often the treatment is done – or how strong the salicylic acid solution is, and how often and for how long it is applied. Because so many factors are involved, more research is needed in order to be able to say which treatment is most likely to be successful.

What are the other treatment options?

Many other wart treatments are available. But none of them have been convincingly proven to be effective, or to have any advantages over salicylic acid or cryotherapy. Many of these treatments haven't been studied at all or – if they have – the results were contradictory.

Some of the treatments are quite complex and have a number of side effects. In Germany, not all of them are covered by statutory health insurers. For these reasons, they are only considered in exceptional circumstances – and even then only if the warts are very persistent and do not go away. The treatments that have not yet been tested in high-quality studies include:

  • Special ointments and solutions: Ointments and solutions containing other medications were tested too, including 5-fluorouracil (a substance that inhibits cell growth), aciclovir and imiquimod (antiviral medications) and zinc.
  • Injections using different kinds of medicine: Various medicines can be injected into the wart. These include bleomycin and 5-fluorouracil (both drugs inhibit cell growth), interferons (drugs that affect the immune system) and specific antigens (substances that, like vaccines, trigger an immune response).
  • Curettage: Curettage involves cutting or scraping warts off with a special instrument. The wart is often first treated with a salicylic acid plaster or solution.
  • Laser surgery: Here the wart is heated and destroyed using a laser beam. This treatment can cause scarring.
  • Pulsed dye laser treatment: This treatment involves using a laser beam to heat and destroy the narrow blood vessels that supply blood to the wart. The aim is to stop the skin cells from multiplying.
  • Erbium YAG laser: This is a laser treatment that aims to destroy the wart cells by strongly heating the fluid in them for a short time.
  • Photodynamic therapy: First, a gel is applied to the wart and left on for about three hours. The gel contains a special chemical substance that is then activated by light so that it can destroy the wart tissue.

It used to be quite common to remove warts by simply cutting them out, but this is rarely done nowadays since it can cause infection or scarring. And new warts may grow back after surgery.

Can warts be “talked” off?

A number of rather unusual wart treatments are available. Some people believe that they have got rid of their warts by using these treatments. But warts usually disappear on their own without any treatment as soon as the body has built up enough of an immune response against the viruses.

A group of researchers from England tested the effectiveness of “distant healing” for treating warts. The study involved 84 people who had an average of eight warts each. One half of the participants were assigned to “distant healers,” who “channel energy” without having direct contact with the person. The other half didn’t have any treatment. The result: After six weeks the people who had been assigned to the distant healers still had an average of eight warts each. Those who didn’t have any treatment each had one fewer on average.

Many of the other unconventional methods such as “talking”/ “charming” warts off or treating them with slugs have not been scientifically proven to work. Several studies comparing homeopathic remedies with placebos (fake drugs) showed that the homeopathic treatment had no effect on warts.

Because most warts go away on their own at some point, it is hardly possible to gauge the effectiveness of these treatments without comparing them with a placebo. Good-quality studies are needed to do so.

Sources

  • Harkness EF, Abbot NC, Ernst E. A randomized trial of distant healing for skin warts. Am J Med 2000; 108(6): 448-452. [PubMed: 10781776]
  • Kwok CS, Gibbs S, Bennett C, Holland R, Abbott R. Topical treatments for cutaneous warts. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2012; (9): CD001781. [PubMed: 22972052]
  • Loo SK, Tang WY. Warts (non-genital). BMJ Clin Evid 2014.
  • Simonart T, de Maertelaer V. Systemic treatments for cutaneous warts: a systematic review. J Dermatolog Treat 2012; 23(1): 72-77. [PubMed: 21054194]
  • IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

    Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. We do not offer individual consultations.

    Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

© IQWiG (Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care)
Bookshelf ID: NBK279585

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