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What Causes Warts, and Are They a Health Concern?

Jan 19, 2024
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Warts are fleshy growths that can appear on any part of your body. But what causes them to develop, and more importantly, are they a health risk? Keep reading to learn the answers.

Urban legend states that you get warts from touching frogs or toads, but medical science tells us warts are the result of an infection from particular strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), an extremely common virus that produces benign growths in the topmost layer of your skin.

At Limmer Dermatology, board-certified dermatologists Dr. Byron Limmer and Dr. Rachel Limmer diagnose and treat all manner of warts at their office in San Antonio, Texas. Though common, many people don’t know much about what causes warts and if they’re at all harmful to your health, so the team has put together this brief guide to get you in the know.

How are warts classified?

Warts are classified by where they’re located on the body — palmar warts on your hands, plantar warts on the soles of your feet, and genital warts on both the male and female genitalia.

HPV enters the body through small cuts in your hands and feet or through sexual intercourse. Though palmar warts are a bit unsightly, they’re usually asymptomatic. Plantar warts aren’t inherently harmful, but the pressure from your body weight causes the skin above the entry point to become thick and callused. They may also cause minor irritation or pain and perhaps a little bleeding.

In addition, if plantar warts cause you pain, you may change the way you stand and walk, leading to problems with your body mechanics that can become serious.

Most types of HPV are benign, but since some strains can lead to cancer, it’s important to have your warts medically checked.

Genital warts are caused by different strains of HPV than palmar and plantar warts and are one of the most common types of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), especially since they’re so virulent. 

Genital warts affect the moist tissues of the genital region and can appear like small, skin-colored bumps in clusters that resemble cauliflower. Often, though, the warts are too small to be seen with the naked eye.

So, HPV infections aren’t dangerous?

Actually, most strains of HPV are neither highly contagious nor easily transmitted from person-to-person. In the case of plantar warts, you usually become infected when the virus enters through small cuts in the soles of your feet. HPV thrives in warm and moist environments, like public locker rooms and pools, so if you walk barefoot in them, even if you’re just taking a shower, you put yourself at risk.

Every person's immune system responds differently to the virus, even members of the same family. Not everyone develops warts, but if you’re immunocompromised for any reason, your viral load may be larger than other people’s, and the warts that do grow may spread into clusters of growths on your skin.

In the case of genital warts,  because some strains increase the risk for cancer, gynecologists routinely do an HPV screening at the same time as a Pap smear, which can indicate if any of the cells in the cervix are abnormal.

Treating warts

Many warts clear up on their own, but it may be over the course of a year or two, during which time your immune system is compromised. You may therefore want to have them removed, especially If you’re experiencing symptoms. 

The specific treatment depends on the size, number, and location of the warts. Here are some of your options:

Topical preparations

We use a solution like salicylic acid (or trichloroacetic acid for genital warts) that helps you shed the infected skin layers. It works incrementally and best in combination with cryotherapy.

Freezing (cryotherapy)

We dab liquid nitrogen onto the wart, causing a blister to form around it. As the skin heals, the dead layers slough off, and new skin appears. You might need to repeat the treatment to effectively remove all the infected layers.


We can (rarely) use an electric current to burn off warts..

Surgical excision

After numbing the area, we can (rarely) use a scalpel to remove  parts of the wart.

Laser treatments

Not every practice likes to use lasers, intense beams of coherent light, to remove a wart, as it can be quite expensive and may lead to scarring. It’s usually reserved for warts that have dug in extensively and are tough to treat.

HPV vaccine

There’s a vaccine for HPV that’s been successful not just in preventing HPV infection, but also in treating genital warts. It’s given in two doses, starting as early as eight years old. It generally doesn’t affect palmar or plantar warts.

Concerned about warts, on whatever part of your body they’ve appeared? Limmer Dermatology can help. Call our office at 210-496-9929 to schedule a consultation, or book online with us today.