Oct. 29, 2008 at 12:01 AM ET
By Diane Mapes
They show up on your fingers, your face, your feet and even your family jewels.
Every Halloween, they also tend to show up on your front porch, as part of a traditional witch costume.
Those bedeviling skin bumps known as warts have plagued human beings (not to mention pigs, horses and cows) for generations. In fact, the ancient Roman physician Celsus wrote about three different varieties of warts (including genital) in 25 A.D. Blamed on everything from sea foam to frogs to masturbation, warts are actually caused by the human papillomavirus (or HPV) and the nongenital variety has been reported in up to 25 percent of children and young adults.
Transmitted from person to person, often through a break in the skin, warts can be picked up like any common virus, although many people have a natural immunity.
“If you have a paper cut on your finger and you’re exposed to the virus by shaking somebody’s hand, you can get a wart if don’t have immunity,” says Sandra Johnson, a Fort Smith, Ark., dermatologist and co-author of “Warts: Diagnosis and Management – An Evidence-Based Approach.” “But I’m exposed to the virus every day and I’ve never gotten one, fortunately. We think there is some genetic predisposition where some people can fight off the wart better than others.”
If you’re not immune and do become infected, don’t fret. You’re in good company. Elvis had warts, as did Tom Sawyer and Keiko, the killer whale who starred in the movie “Free Willy.” Another well-known sufferer was Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, who famously asked the painter Sir Peter Lely, not to glam up his portrait, but simply paint him “warts and all.”
Johnson says there are more than 80 types of HPV. Some cause cervical cancer, skin cancer and genital warts; others are responsible for benign skin warts.
Most wart sufferers have verruca vulgaris, or common warts, which usually grow on fingers, hands, knees and elbows and are easily recognized by their cauliflower texture and dome shape. Other varieties include verruca plantaris (plantar warts) which grow on the bottom of the foot and can be quite painful; verruca plana (flat warts) which are smaller, smoother, and more numerous and are usually found on the legs and face; periungual warts which grow around or under the nail, and filiform warts, which typically appear as a single long stalk, often on the face.
Oddly enough, witches -- famous for their warts -- don’t really have them, says Johnson.
“The ‘warts’ they have on their nose aren’t really warts at all,” she says. “They’re fibrous papules, a benign growth on the skin. They’re kind of like a mole except bigger. I don’t know where all that got started.”
But Hema Sundaram, a Washington D.C. dermatologist and author of “Face Value: The Truth About Beauty and a Guilt-Free Guide to Finding It,” says she has a good idea.
“Both men and women tend to develop more growths on their face and body with age,” she says. “And fibrous papules have a predilection for the nose.”
Nose growths symbolized age, Sundaram says, something that historically didn’t happen to women, since most died before menopause due to childbirth complications or other causes. As a result, old women were viewed with fear.
“My theory would be that women of abnormal longevity were often branded as witches and by a transference process, their nose growths became associated with witchery,” she says.
How does a mortal get rid of warts?
Humans have been trying to figure that out for centuries and as a result have come up with all manner of folk remedies. Some of the more outlandish involve pig’s blood, dog’s dung, tobacco juice or the entrails of a freshly killed hen. Others recommend a wart sufferer “transfer” the wart by rubbing it onto someone or something else: the father of an illegitimate child, the hand of a corpse, a dead cat, a potato.
“Tom Sawyer’s ‘spunk water cure’ is probably the most famous folk remedy,” says Johnson of the various cures she’s researched over the years. “But my favorite may be spitting on your wart with morning saliva -- before you brush your teeth.”
Thanks to their placebo effect (not to mention the fact many warts simply disappear on their own), some people -- and even some doctors -- believe folk remedies or hypnosis can be effective in getting rid of warts. Johnson however recommends painting hand or foot warts with clear nail polish or covering them with duct tape, both of which change the texture of the skin which makes it less hospitable to the virus.
Other treatments include daily applications of salicylic acid which peels off the skin containing the virus; cryotherapy (freezing, often with liquid nitrogen), electrosurgery (burning the wart) and laser.
“Most treatments have about a 70 percent success rate,” says Johnson, who compares warts to a weed, one which, unfortunately, often grows back.
“They’re pretty smart,” she says. “I’ve come to respect the wart virus.”
[Readers are reminded that home remedies shared in comments are for entertainment purposes only. They are not to be taken as medical advice. If you have a problem with warts, it is recommended that you contact a medical professional.]