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Warts: What to know about the ‘mushroom-like’ growths on your skin

WATCH: What are warts?

Few people want to look at them, no one likes to have them, but you need to know about them — we’re talking about warts.

Approximately one in 10 people are affected by warts, which include plantar and common warts, according to the Canadian Skin Patient Alliance.

For kids, warts are a more common occurrence: around 10 to 20 per cent of school-aged children deal with warts, the organization reported.

While annoying, are warts something you should worry about and treat? Here’s what you need to know about the skin condition.

What are warts?

Warts are skin growths caused by a type of human papillomavirus (HPV), says Dr. Nicholas Durand, a Toronto-based podiatrist at Sunnybrook Centre for Independent Living.

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Durand says the virus enters through a broken area of skin or micro-abrasion. This means warts are formed when you’re exposed and have direct contact with HPV.

“Going to swimming pools or walking barefoot in the gym — or anywhere that is communal — people are liable to get exposure to that virus,” he explained.

Once the virus enters the skin, it sits around for a few months before forming a wart, Durand says. Once in action, the virus causes the top layer of skin to grow rapidly on the infected area.

“People often think of [warts] as being a sort of foreign body, but what actually grows up is just your skin growing fast in one place,” Durand said.
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Common warts often appear on hands but can grow anywhere, while plantar warts appear on the feet. They come in a variety of sizes, and some are flat while others form a bump.

The longer you’ve had a wart, the deeper they may be, says Dr. Chris Hastings, a podiatrist at Toronto’s Podiatry on Yonge at King.

“The wart develops in the deeper portions of the skin and grows like a mushroom up through visible skin,” Hastings said.

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“As it does that, it brings up nerve endings and blood, and so you get a little black spot quite often on the surface of the wart.”

Are some people more prone to warts than others?

Warts are easily spread. People who shower in public places, like gyms or swimming pools, may be at greater risk for picking up the virus, says Laura Desjardins, a foot specialist at Podiatry on Yonge at King.

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Warts can be contracted from nail salons, too, she added.

Those with weakened immune systems are at a greater risk for developing warts, as their bodies are less effective at fighting off the virus.

How to treat warts

In order to treat a wart, you need to first be sure you have one. Desjardins says people often mistake warts for corns because there can be a callous covering the wart.

How painful the area is can help determine what condition you have. If you pinch a corn, it shouldn’t hurt, but pinching a wart will cause pain. Desjardins recommends seeing a professional if you’re unsure.

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“Podiatrists and chiropodists are trained to first remove that callous — because [warts] lay deep in the skin — so they can properly medically treat that virus,” Desjardins said.

Some warts are easier to treat than others, Durand explains. Plantar warts are notoriously tricky because they’re often on weight-bearing parts of the foot, and people walk on them.

Treating plantar warts can cause more discomfort than having the wart itself, he continued.

“I notoriously don’t treat them unless the patient’s immune system is compromised because the treatment is worse on the foot than the actual wart,” Durand said.

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Durand says warts will sometimes go away on their own, too, meaning they don’t always need treatment. He also tends not to treat children’s warts because the process can be harsh.

If your wart does need treatment, Durand says there are various methods, which rely on causing tissue damage.

These include chemical agents — both over-the-counter and administered by a doctor — freezing treatments and laser treatments.

“Then there’s a relatively new method, which is actually putting a needle through the lesion itself under local anesthesia,” Durand says.

“So all of those are very aggressive and cause tissue destruction, and they’re really about getting the body to recognize the virus and then get rid of it.”

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Desjardins adds the longer you’ve had a wart and the deeper it is, the more aggressive treatment you need. This means pharmacy grade products may not kill the virus entirely.

Addressing skin issues through exfoliation
Addressing skin issues through exfoliation

Hastings adds, however, that in some instances, warts can become painful and spread into a cluster. It’s always best to consult a medical expert if you are concerned.

How to prevent warts

Desjardins and Hastings say that treating warts not only prevents them from spreading to other parts of your body, but to other people, too.

Because the virus can be passed on by sharing towels, in showers, or in workout classes, killing the virus protects others from catching it.

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It’s also a good idea to always wear flip-flops in public showers, and even socks in barefoot exercise classes.

Don’t pick at warts, either.

When it comes to warts on hands, don’t share nail tools and don’t bite nails; warts can enter around raw skin around the nail.

“Warts can last, and they can become very painful,” Desjardins says. “And that’s one of the reasons why people want to get rid of them.”

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Laura.Hensley@globalnews.ca