Opinion » Antidote

Not for Use on Toads

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I've got two warts on two fingers and I want to know if I can use duct tape to get rid of them. They don't hurt or bleed or anything, but I don't want to go to the doctor to get them frozen. My friend's mom did it for him with duct tape and it worked great.

—Austin, age "almost 10"

Warts do seem kind of gross (especially when you're 9-and-three-quarters), but they really aren't. What is gross is the name doctors give those warts: Verrucae vulgaris. Ugh, that sounds like a good name for Skeletor's girlfriend in the next He-Man movie.

The warts on your fingers were probably caused by cuts or scrapes that got infected with a tiny virus called HPV, or Human Papilloma Virus. You could have picked it up anywhere—from a friend or a towel in the locker room. Once the virus enters the cut, and if your body doesn't kill it, it can set up shop and start causing the cells to multiply rapidly under your skin. It can take up to nine months before you start to notice a little rough-surfaced bump. This kind of wart can also grow on the bottom of your feet, and are called plantar warts (not Planter's Warts which, if I recall correctly, is a not-very-popular vacuum sealed snack).

The good news about warts is, treat them or not, they usually disappear in a few months to a couple of years. The fact that they disappear spontaneously has given rise to lots of folk remedies and old wives' tales. For some reason, many have to do with burying things: Rub a potato slice on the wart, bury it in a graveyard at midnight; have someone "buy" them from you for a quarter and then bury the coin; rub with a silver spoon and bury the spoon, etc. Can't quite follow the logic, but grandpas with metal detectors are very grateful.

Most doctors hardly ever use the graveyard burial method anymore (except with their blunders). They primarily use cryotherapy, freezing warts with a 10 second burst of liquid nitrogen. This can be painful when the lump falls off and begins to heal, and sometimes it has to be done again two or three weeks later. Laser treatments work well, too, but they can leave scars. Surprisingly, a 2002 British Medical Journal article found that stuff called salicylic acid worked better than cryotherapy, lasers or anything else. And, bad news for your pediatrician, you can buy sticky salicylic acid pads at the supermarket.

The duct tape study your friend's mom read about was another hit to your doctor's income. These researchers took about 60 people between the ages 3 and 22 with common warts and randomly divided them into two groups. One group got cryotherapy up to six times, while the others used small pieces of duct tape on their warts. After two months, 85 percent of the duct tape users were wart-free versus only 60 percent of the ... um ... "wart-sicle" group.

The scientists think that skin irritation from the tape somehow stimulates the immune system; I think the warts skedaddled because they were afraid of being torn off like a bikini wax. Speaking of which, I should mention to adult readers that this study does not apply to genital warts. My valuable contribution to medical axioms is, "No good can come from duct tape use anywhere between your knees and caboose."

So, Austin, you've got my approval to use the tape. Tell your mom to cut pieces of regular duct tape to about the size of each wart, and stick them on. Leave them there for six days and replace them if they fall off. On day six, remove the tape and soak your hand in warm water until the warts soften. File them down with an emery board and leave the tape off overnight. In the morning, replace the tape and repeat the routine again. The doctors who did the study said the warts are usually gone within a month, but if there is no effect in two weeks, it's probably not going to work for you.

You'll have quite a bit of duct tape left over, so use it wisely. Maybe, instead of lemonade, you could set up a little stand on the sidewalk and sell wart-sized duct tape discs. You'd be quite popular with the neighborhood parents and the envy of the kid with the paper route. The liquid nitrogen people might not like it, but freezing and shattering hot dogs in science class seems like a much better use for their stuff anyway.

Dr. Ed Rabin is a chiropractor practicing at Life Chiropractic Center in Boise. Send your wart filings and health-related questions to theantidote@edrabin.com (on the Web at www.edrabin.com).