By Howard J. Bennett
When I was a kid, my mom told me not to touch frogs because I’d get warts. Although I followed most of my mom’s rules, touching frogs was way too tempting. As a result, I must have handled thousands of them by my tenth birthday. And even though I did not get warts from frogs, I did get a couple of goose eggs on my head and a cut on my knee because I fell as I chased my slippery prey.
So if frogs don’t cause warts, what does? The answer is viruses. Yep, warts are superficial infections caused by different types of viruses. If you look closely at most warts, you will see tiny black dots within the top layer of skin. Those dots are not dirt, but tiny blood vessels that clotted as the virus invaded the body. In fact, the wart itself is not the virus. Instead, it’s an area of calloused skin the virus creates. Think of it as the virus’s home.
One of the most interesting things about wart viruses is that the body doesn’t recognize them. As a result, the body makes no attempt to kill the invader, and the wart can hang around on your poor, defenseless fingers or toes for months or years. In most people, however, the immune system will finally snap to attention and kill the virus, thereby eliminating the wart.
Depending on their location, warts have different names. Common warts are the ones seen on fingers and plantar warts are the ones seen on the bottom of feet. My favorite wart has a really awesome name: molluscum contagiosum. It got this name for two reasons. First, the wart has a dome-shaped appearance that resembles certain mollusk shells (clams, etc.). Second, this wart is more contagious than others, mostly to the person who has the infection.
But the coolest thing about molluscum contagiosum is that it sounds a lot like a spell from the world of Harry Potter. In particular, I think of Wingardium Leviosa whenever I see a patient with a molluscum wart. Even more interesting is the fact that JK Rowling’s husband is an anesthesiologist. (This is the name for doctors who put patients to sleep if they need an operation.) It’s too bad she didn’t marry a dermatologist (skin doctor). In that case, she might have used “Molluscum Contagiosum” as a spell to cure warts!
So what should you do it you have a wart? There are plenty of non-prescription remedies to treat warts. Most of them work by exposing the wart to a mild acid that slowly (and painlessly) burns through the skin and kills the virus. Others work by freezing the skin, which also kills the virus. Some people go to dermatologists (skin doctors) that have stronger medicines, which can kill the virus more quickly.
© 2012 Howard J. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.
(First published in the Washington Post 11/2/09.)
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