Give warts the big freeze

Consumer Reports News: September 23, 2010 11:25 AM

While waiting to cross the street one day, I saw a father trying to take his young daughter’s hand, to stop her from running out into traffic. She was struggling to get away, saying, "No Dad, your other hand. I'm not holding your warty hand."

Warts can sometimes be painful, but like the girl in the street, many people just find the idea of them unpleasant. It's hardly surprising that people in less enlightened times came up with all kinds of folk remedies for warts, many of which, according to, seemed to involve toads.

We now understand that warts are caused by a virus, and we’re more likely to ask a doctor to freeze off a wart than mess around with unfortunate amphibians. Salicylic acid is a popular over-the-counter option, with liquid or medicated discs being used to break down the tough skin over a wart (Dr. Scholl's is one widely available brand of wart treatments).

Previous research hasn't been clear on whether freezing or salicylic acid works best for warts. A new study brings some answers.

For ordinary warts, which most often affected study participants' hands, freezing was the winner. People had their wart frozen with liquid nitrogen every two weeks, which cured 49 percent of people after 13 weeks. Salicylic acid got rid of warts for just 15 percent of people, and involved a daily routine of filing down the wart, protecting the surrounding skin with tape, and applying a gel. The study also included people who got no treatment at all. Of these, only 8 percent found their wart had gone away after 13 weeks.

For warts affecting the feet (called plantar warts), the story was different. For children under 12, freezing and salicylic both worked about 50 percent of the time. In this age group there was also a pretty good chance of a plantar wart going away by itself. For adults though, plantar warts were stubborn. Freezing and salicylic acid only worked for 5 percent of people, and no one had their wart disappear without treatment. Pressure when you walk tends to compact plantar warts and leave them covered with a layer of hard skin, which seems to make them harder to treat.

Of the two treatments, freezing caused more side effects, including pain and blistering. Despite this, people who had their warts frozen tended to be happiest with their treatment. Salicylic acid caused skin irritation for some people. You might see freezing sprays in drugstores, but they use dimethyl ether or propane, and don’t get as cold as the liquid nitrogen used by doctors. Salicylic acid comes in different strengths, so you might want to check before choosing a brand. The study used 40 percent salicylic acid.

Don’t use over-the-counter treatments for warts on delicate skin, such as on your face. Genital warts also need more careful treatment. You’ll need to see your doctor.

What you need to know. Freezing cures about half of warts at 13 weeks. Salicylic acid doesn’t work so well, although you might be successful if you stick with treatment for longer. Either treatment works fine for plantar warts in young children, but much less well for anyone over 12. If you’re not sure whether a mark on your skin is a wart, get it checked out by a doctor.

Philip Wilson, patient editor, BMJ Group has partnered with The BMJ Group to monitor the latest medical research and assess the evidence to help you decide which news you should use.

Read more on what may make you more likely to get warts.

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