When I was a kid, my mom told me not to touch frogs because I would get warts. Although I did most of the things my mom told me, touching frogs was way too tempting. As a result, I must have handled thousands of the slippery amphibians by my 10th 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 prey.
So if frogs don’t cause warts, what does? The answer is viruses. Yep, warts are infections caused by different types of viruses. If you look closely at a wart, you will usually 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 your body. In fact, the wart itself is not the virus. Instead, it’s an area of calloused skin the virus creates to protect itself. Think of it as the virus’s home.
One of the most interesting things about wart viruses is that the body often 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 finally snaps to attention and kills the virus, thereby eliminating the wart.
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 eats 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) who have stronger medicines that can kill the virus more quickly.
Finally, there is a method pioneered by none other than Huckleberry Finn. I can’t recommend this treatment from a medical perspective, but it’s fun to read about. The following exchange took place between Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in Mark Twain’s classic, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer:
Tom: What’s that you got?
Huck: Dead cat.
Tom: Lemme see him, Huck. My, he’s pretty stiff. Where’d you get him?
Huck: Bought him off’n a boy.
Tom: What did you give?
Huck: I give a blue ticket and a bladder that I got at the slaughter-house.
Tom: Where’d you get the blue ticket?
Huck: Bought it off’n Ben Rogers two weeks ago for a hoop-stick.
Tom: Say—what is dead cats good for, Huck?
Huck: Good for? Cure warts with.
[First Published in the Washington Post, November 2, 2009]