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It's pretty common for kids to get warts. What parents need to know, according to dermatologists.

A doctor, wearing gloves, points out a wart on the bottom of a child’s foot.
What parents can do if their kid gets a wart. (Getty Images)

Despite the current tween and teen obsession with pricey skin care products, most healthy kids don’t need to regularly see a dermatologist. But what if a wart — a rough but benign skin growth caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) — suddenly appears on your child’s hand, the sole of their foot or elsewhere on their body?

Some kids may take having a wart in stride; others may feel ashamed. Sometimes a child only gets one wart and forgets about it. But if you’re not careful, warts can spread to the entire family. What’s the best way to prevent that from happening, and is a wart ever a sign of a more serious health issue? Here’s what dermatologists want parents to know.

What causes warts?

While HPV causes warts, Dr. Christopher Bunick, a dermatologist and professor with Yale School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life that parents needn’t worry that their child has a wart because they were exposed to a sexually transmitted infection. “There are many different strains of HPV, so those that cause common warts are not the same as those that cause genital warts,” he says. A child might have developed a plantar wart on the bottom of their foot from walking around barefoot at the pool or in gymnastics class, for example, and coming in contact with the virus.

How common are warts in children?

Warts are extremely common in children. That’s because children’s immune systems haven’t been exposed to HPV strains before and therefore haven’t built up any immunity to them, Bunick explains.

Dr. Elizabeth Thompson, a dermatologist with Kaiser Permanente in Seattle, notes that while warts can develop at any age, they only affect about 3% to 5% of adults, compared to 10% to 20% of children. Warts in children “are most often found on the hands, fingers, feet and face,” she tells Yahoo Life.

How do warts spread from person to person?

Warts can spread in two ways. It’s common for them to spread through skin-to-skin contact. Active children are prone to getting scrapes and cuts, which create “a portal for infection,” Bunick says.

Warts can also spread through fomites, or surfaces where the virus that causes warts can live for a short time, Thompson explains. Examples of fomites are towels, razors and damp shower floors.

Because of how warts spread, “it is common to find several members of the same family infected with warts at the same time,” Thompson adds. She notes that it can be hard to curb the spread of warts because it “can be months between exposure to the virus and development of a visible wart.”

Although warts are contagious, not everyone who is exposed to the virus that causes them will develop one, according to Thompson. “Each person will have a different susceptibility,” she says. “There are multiple strains of HPV that can cause warts. Some individuals have already been exposed and developed immunity to particular strains.” A person’s immune system and whether or not they have a cut or cracked skin (making it easier for the virus to break through) can also determine if they end up with a wart.

Can warts spread on a child’s body?

Once a child gets one wart, it’s common for them to multiply, Thompson says. Bunick explains that children may develop multiple warts if they “are picking and scratching at the skin,” because this will create new openings for the virus that causes warts to spread. Children with compromised immune systems are also at increased risk of developing multiple warts, Bunick says.

Can warts cause cancer?

Some strains of HPV are associated with a higher risk of developing certain types of cancers, Bunick says. However, the strain that usually causes warts isn’t cause for alarm. “Most common warts do not carry any severe or long-term risk,” he adds.

What should a parent do if they notice a wart on their child?

If you notice a wart on your child, Bunick says not to panic. “Discuss care with a pediatrician first, and if needed, obtain a referral to a dermatologist,” he advises. Bunick recommends that parents cover their child’s wart with a Band-Aid to prevent their child from scratching it and spreading it to other parts of their body.

Bunick says that warts “are generally treated by physical destruction.” Parents can try to treat warts at home by using over-the-counter products that contain salicylic acid, he says. Thompson explains that salicylic acid “is applied to the wart nightly and causes softening of the wart skin, which can be gently removed with a clean pumice stone in the morning.”

Another home remedy is duct tape, Thompson adds. “Removing the duct tape removes some layers of the wart virus,” she explains, noting that the tape can be used with or without salicylic acid.

However, Bunick cautions that at-home treatments can take two to three months to work. “They require persistence,” he says. “The most common mistake is stopping when the skin turns white,” before the wart has fully come off, he adds.

And while warts sometimes go away on their own, Bunick warns that this can take “months to years” since HPV is good at evading the immune system.

When should a child see a doctor about a wart?

Many warts can be treated successfully with over-the-counter products. However, if a wart hasn’t gone away after two to three months with consistent at-home treatment, Bunick says it’s time to see your pediatrician or a dermatologist to develop a new plan.

He also recommends seeing a doctor “if the warts are extensive or involve sensitive areas like the face, genitalia or hands and feet.” Thompson adds that it can be helpful to see a doctor “if warts are causing pain or continually enlarging.”

Sometimes curettage (cutting or scraping the wart off) and cryotherapy (freezing the wart) are used to remove warts in a doctor’s office, Bunick says. There are also newer approaches to wart removal that stimulate the immune system with prescription medication, he adds.

“Ultimately, the key to getting rid of warts is being persistent,” he says, noting that warts “often require repeated rounds of treatment to ensure a cure.”

What if a wart is on a child’s face?

Many treatments for warts cause scarring, Thompson says. If a child has a wart on their face, Bunick cautions that parents and physicians need to “be careful about treatment so that you don’t scar the patient.” Thompson does not recommend using salicylic acid on the face due to the risk of scarring the delicate skin there.

One approach to treating a wart on the face is with immunotherapy, Bunick says. If that doesn’t work, freezing the wart “is generally a good and well-tolerated option,” he says.

What if a child is embarrassed about a wart?

Some children may be embarrassed about having a wart, especially if it’s in a spot where others can easily see it, like the hands or face. If this happens, “it is important for parents to reassure their child that it is a common skin condition and nothing to be ashamed of,” Thompson says. Parents can also consult with a dermatologist for proper treatment to help remove the wart more quickly than is possible with at-home treatments, she adds.