Many remedies for warts, including doing nothing

MEDICAL MATTERS

April 14, 2006|By JUDY FOREMAN

What are warts and how can you get rid of them?

Warts are benign growths caused by the human papilloma virus, or HPV. Because they are caused by a virus, they can spread from person to person by direct skin contact, and indirectly by coming in contact with the shed skin of a person with warts. This can happen in public showers or on pool decks.

There are more than 100 types of HPV, and each type causes infection in a specific part of the body. Some strains cause "common" warts, which grow on the fingers, feet and knees. Some cause plantar warts, which grow on the soles or heels of the feet; some cause flat warts, which grow on the face. Still other types cause genital warts. And totally different strains cause genital, cervical and oral cancer.

With many warts, the best treatment often is to do nothing. "In two-thirds of patients with common warts, the warts will go away on their own in two years," said Dr. John Williams, a dermatologist at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital. Warts "are not dangerous, and they are not intrinsically painful," said Dr. Bernard Cohen, director of pediatric dermatology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

There is also not much you can do to protect yourself against warts, except for common-sense things such as wearing flip-flops in public pools or showers. "It's impossible to prevent plantar warts because they are so ubiquitous," Williams said.

Once they have warts, people want to get rid of them, and remedies abound - some over-the-counter, some available only in a doctor's office. One nonprescription solution: put a compound containing salicylic acid on the wart daily, scraping off dead tissue as you go. Another is good old duct tape. Cover the wart for a week, then rip off the tape.

Another solution is cantharidin, which a doctor "paints" on the wart. Alternatively, doctors can also use liquid nitrogen to freeze off warts. They can also burn off warts, laser them off or, as a last resort, cut them out.

If you are thinking of using wart medication on children, read the product labels - some are fine for kids, some aren't. Ask your doctor whether a proposed treatment will cause scars. And be careful with products that contain flammable ingredients.

Can tight-fitting clothes cause skin rashes?

You bet. Tights, skin-hugging pants, pantyhose and other garments - including underwear with a tight elastic band - can all cause folliculitis, an inflammation of hair follicles caused by bacteria or a fungus that is already on the skin. Because of the irritation caused by the clothing, the bacteria or fungus is pushed in deeper, and sweating exacerbates the process.

A slightly different problem, called pseudo-folliculitis, isn't triggered by infection, but by shaving too closely. When you shave hair - especially in the pubic area, armpit or face - the hair often grows back curling, cutting into the skin and causing inflammation, said Hopkins' Cohen.

If tight clothing is the problem, wear looser garments - or at least clothes designed to "wick" sweat away from the skin. You can also combat folliculitis with antibacterial soaps or benzoyl peroxide-based products such as Panoxyl soap, said Williams, the dermatologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

In general, Williams said, "Folliculitis will run its course. If it doesn't, oral antibiotics may be required."

In some cases, infectious folliculitis can progress to boils, which are painful, pimple-like sores deeper in the skin that may have to be lanced to get rid of pus. If inflamed hair follicles are large, tender or accompanied by a fever or swollen glands, you should see a doctor.

For pseudo-folliculitis, the solution is to try not to shave too closely (some electric razors can be adjusted) and shave in the direction in which the hair grows. Change disposable razors daily so that the razor doesn't pull too hard on the hair.

Send your questions to foreman@baltsun.com.

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