DADDY-Y-Y-Y!” my teenage daughter came crying to me. “It’s ugly! What can I do?” She pointed to her knee, where a rather large wart sat. In just a few months, it had grown from a tiny dot and was now very noticeable—it was summer, and she had just started wearing shorts.
I took my daughter to the local drugstore, where we bought an over-the-counter wart cream. I gave her directions for using it and promptly forgot about the matter until . . .
“DADDY-Y-Y-Y! It’s getting bigger!” After a few days of using the cream, my daughter was unnerved. To me the wart looked about the same size, but it surely hadn’t fallen off as promised by the cream’s manufacturer. So I took her to a dermatologist, who removed the wart surgically. Zip! No more wart! The procedure left a small scar, but it wasn’t big enough to be of concern—at least to me.
Then, several weeks later . . . “DADDY-Y-Y-Y! It’s back! I want to try out for cheerleaders! Do something!” Indeed, the wart had returned. Already it was bigger and meaner-looking than ever. I was desperate, but I kept my wits about me. I knew that the herb celandine had a long folk history as an effective wart remedy. Additionally, published scientific papers show that, when applied topically, celandine is an effective germ-fighter with few side effects.
Celandine grows like a weed in our garden, so I had an ample supply and suggested to my daughter that we experiment. Every day for a week after her evening shower, she was to go to the garden, pick celandine leaves, and squeeze juice from the leaf stems onto the wart. After seven days, we’d assess the situation to see whether celandine worked.
After one week, my daughter came running to me. “It’s shrinking—for the first time!” Eventually, it disappeared, once and for all.
The secret life of warts
A wart, or verruca, is a growth of skin. The common wart, Verruca vulgaris, typically occurs on the hands. Flat warts, V. plana, typically occur on the face. And the plantar wart, or V. plantaris (which derives its name from the plantar muscles of the foot), typically occurs on the soles of the feet. The genital (venereal) wart (Condyloma acuminatum) occurs on the genitals or in the perianal region.
All warts are evidence of the skin’s reaction to one of more than seventy-five strains of a DNA virus called human papillomavirus, or HPV. HPV infection causes the cells of the epidermis, the outermost layer of skin, to proliferate.
Although individuals vary in their susceptibility to HPV, the virus is extremely contagious and easily picked up from gym floors, poolsides, contaminated shoes and clothing, or, in the case of genital warts, unprotected sex. HPV thrives especially in lesions on moist skin. Symptoms appear one week to a year or even more after infection, so the association between exposure and wart development is easily forgotten. Because family members share living quarters as well as genes, it’s common to see an entire family with warts.
Warts are not normally cancerous and are not a prelude to cancer, although some strains of HPV are associated with cancerous and precancerous conditions. People with compromised immune systems are especially susceptible to HPV infection.
Warts may regress within six months to two years, even without treatment. Or a single wart may give rise to satellite warts. Warts are usually painless, unless they occur on the soles of the feet, where, combined with cold temperatures, they make for very painful walking. Their color can vary from gray-white to dark brown, and they appear as fat to convex lumps with rough surfaces.
Standard treatments for wart removal include liquid nitrogen, CO2 laser, or surgical excision; less common treatments include electrocoagulation or injection with bleomycin (the latter is used with caution because of its potential carcinogenicity with long-term use). Over-the-counter remedies usually consist of salicylic acid, resorcinol, or tretinoin in a cream base. Retinoic acid prevents HPV transcription, so has potential for therapy. Genital warts, as discussed below, are usually treated with a very toxic compound extracted from mayapple called podophyllin.
Centuries of folk use and circumstantial scientific evidence indicate that celandine and bloodroot may be effective in removing warts, yet mild enough to prevent side effects with proper use. Larger, better-designed studies on both herbs are needed, however, to firmly substantiate their effectiveness as wart remedies.
As for my daughter, she didn’t make cheerleader, but she did make the girl’s field hockey team. So she had cheerleaders cheering for her! As for the wart, the only trace, eight years later, is the scar left from the dermatologist’s knife.
Art Tucker is a research professor at Delaware State University in Dover and an Herbs for Health editorial adviser.