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Put a frog in front of a child, and they may squeal that it will give them warts if they touch it. But warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), and spread by contact with contaminated objects, such as towels, and infected people, rather than a chance encounter with a hapless amphibian.

Most people develop immunity to HPV over time. Younger children with a still-developing immune system are therefore more prone to developing warts.

How you get them

The spread of this contagious virus is made easier if there is some breach in the barrier of the skin, says Dr Ilshpi Browne, a Cape Town-based dermatologist. This may occur if the skin is injured, or has been in water for too long, perhaps if the child has been swimming. Warts can also be spread around a child’s body if they pick at a wart and then scratch themselves elsewhere. They can grow anywhere on the body, including the soles of the feet, or on the lips and inside the mouth. Warts that develop on the bed of the nails are difficult to treat and could affect the nail’s growth.

Getting rid of those bumps

Fortunately, warts seldom exist for more than 18 months in people with a normal immune system. “Warts are not life-threatening and will run their course anyway,” notes Browne. But treatment is still recommended, as warts can get bigger or spread, says Durban pharmacist Peter Carruthers. They may also be uncomfortable or even embarrassing for children. Plantar warts, which grow on the bottom of the foot, need to be treated by a doctor. For other warts, there are various treatment options.

One home remedy worth trying is using an occlusion tape, such as duct tape. This should be left on for a week at a time, which will cause the wart to soften and dissolve. This will cause an inflammation that will activate the immune system to get rid of the wart. Browne says that, although a safe option, it often doesn’t work as people don’t keep the tape on for long enough. Using plant juice, such as aloe, may work if it causes some inflammation. But Browne cautions against using substances on children, especially on fingers that could come into contact with the mouth.

Killing the virus

Over-the-counter medications are also available. Salicylic or lactic acid treatments can be painted onto the wart. It may also help to file the wart down with an emery board. However, it could be several months before you see results. Carruthers says these treatments need to be used with care and noninvasive homeopathic lotions or tablets may be better for children.

A doctor can also laser, surgically cut out or remove a stubborn wart with liquid nitrogen. Although quick, a surgical procedure may be painful and more likely to leave a scar. Brown adds that as the immune system is not involved in getting rid of the wart, the child is not building immunity to the virus and there is a chance of recurrence.

Prevention is better than cure

  • Children should not share towels and washcloths.
  • Encourage them to wear slip-slops in communal changing rooms and around pools.
  • Keep their feet clean and dry, and change socks and shoes daily.
  • Boost their immune system with a healthy diet to prevent warts from recurring.

Old wives’ tales

There’s no guarantee that any of these remedies will work, but there’s also no harm in trying:

  • Peel a thin slice of potato skin and rub it onto the wart. Repeat this twice a day.
  • Rub garlic onto the wart and then cover the wart. Repeat twice a day.
  • Cut off a small piece of banana skin and tape it, inside skin down, onto the wart.
  • Rub apple cider vinegar onto the wart using some cotton wool, then cover. Repeat every 12 hours.
  • Paint a layer of clear nail varnish over the wart, repeating whenever the nail polish comes off.