How to Treat Warts: Head to the Hardware Store for Some Duct Tape

In my book, warts are one of the more annoying realities of life.  Though they are harmless–they generally don’t itch or hurt except for some deep warts on the feet—warts are quite a nuisance.   They can be unsightly and uncomfortable.  And they are usually very difficult to get rid of.
Warts are caused by a member of the human papilloma virus (HPV) family.  They are contagious, but only very mildly so.  Mostly this virus likes to settle in and make itself at home.  In order to do so, it recruits our body to build it a well-supplied fortification:  thick hardened skin keeps it safe.  And the little black dots seen in many warts are not “seeds” but are the ends of small blood vessels that the HPV virus recruits to help it survive.
Safe in this fortress, the HPV viruses hide from the body’s immune system with great skill, and so they manage to live in the skin of our finger or knee or foot for quite a long time before they are recognized as foreigners and the body finally eradicates them.  Or perhaps they just get bored and move to a new neighborhood.
So how can we evict these unwanted guests?  Just like the cold virus, we have no specific medicine to cure warts.  We do utilize several different treatments for warts, but aside from top-secret magic spells, which I will write about soon, most of these treatments are rather unsophisticated. Basically, we use a very toxic substance–an acid, extreme cold, or bludgeoning with a scalpel—to create a ruckus. Salicylic acid is sold over the counter or available in stronger concoctions with a doctor’s prescription.  I frequently “freeze” warts using liquid nitrogen in my office, and it is also available over the counter.  And dermatologists sometimes “cut out” warts in their offices.  All of these treatments work by traumatizing the area in order to stimulate an inflammatory process that is meant to activate the body’s immune system.  The idea is that the body’s army of immune cells will then “see” the virus that causes the wart and eradicate it.  
These treatments, however, have significant downsides.  They are generally quite painful, and most kids hate them.  Given our professional edict to “do no harm,” treating warts in my office is one of my least favorite procedures.
I prefer to use a relatively recently invented treatment for warts:  “adhesiotherapy.”  This is a very important-sounding term for a very low-tech solution.  In this method, duct tape (yes, plain old silver hardware store duct tape) is placed on the wart and left in place for weeks to months.  And, as strange as it might sound, it works: in studies comparing duct tape therapy with standard treatments, warts treated with adhesiotherapy went away as fast as those treated with salicylic acid or liquid nitrogen.
No one knows exactly why it works.  Some posit that there is something special about the adhesive used on duct tape.  Others speculate that simply the act of occluding the area stimulates healing cells to migrate in.  In any case, duct tape therapy is effective and not painful: the best sort of therapeutic intervention. And now they make really colorful versions of duct tape, so kids love it. 
Every time I start to tell parents about this low-tech solution to warts, however, I wonder if they are going to think I’m crazy.  And I wonder at the thought process of the person who came up with such a batty idea in the first place.
Cheers to him (or her).
Tips for parents:  

  • If warts are not bothering you or your child, there is no need to treat them.  They will go away, though it will take months or years.
  • To use duct tape for treating warts, apply duct tape over the wart and leave it on for 6 days.  On the last day of the week, remove the tape and scrape away any dead skin/wart cells.  Reapply the duct tape and repeat until the wart has disappeared.
  • Some areas of the body (particularly the feet) are difficult to keep covered with tape all the time: you may try application at night only in these cases.
  • The key to any treatment of warts is patience.  Most of the studies on adhesiotherapy used the treatment for at least 2 months.  Even with office-based treatments like freezing the wart with liquid nitrogen, several visits about every 3 weeks are usually required.  

Useful Links:

  • For a look at the article published about adhesiotherapy: The efficacy of duct tape vs. cryotherapy in the treatment of verruca vulgaris (the common wart). Arch. Pediatr. Adolesc. Med. 156(10):971-74, 2002.
  • Here is a thoughtful review of the article: 

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