Plantar warts are located on the sole — or plantar surface — of your foot. Before your imagination gets out of hand trying to conceptualize how HPV ended up there, you should know that there are more than 150 different HPV strains and your wart is not caused by a strain that is sexually transmitted. Phew, got that one out of the way.
What makes plantar warts particularly annoying is that instead of growing outward like other warts, the pressure on your feet pushes the warts inward instead. This can hurt like crazy, especially if the wart is located on a high-traffic area like the heel or ball of your foot.
Sometimes plantar warts go away on their own, but sometimes they don’t, or not as quickly as you’d like. Aggressive cryotherapy and salicylic acid, found in over-the-counter wart removal products such as Compound W, have been shown to help in wart removal, but results from studies of other more MacGyver-ish remedies are, well, meh at best.
Yet a quick search online shows that indeed people are using — and swearing by — at-home remedies as diverse as duct tape, apple cider vinegar and urine. And filming these efforts in uniquely bizarre yet intimate YouTube videos that you probably don’t want to watch over lunch.
So we decided to ask wart buster Sara Mahmood, D.P.M., whose official title is doctor of podiatric medicine at the Vascular Center at UW Medical Center - Northwest, if indeed some of these more intriguing methods might actually work — and if so, why.
Why plantar warts are hard to get rid of
You’ve probably noticed that the layers of skin on the bottom of your foot are quite thick. That thick skin works well to protect you from things that might pierce the bottom of your foot but, unfortunately, also serves as a protective barrier for the HPV virus.
“Because the layers of skin on the bottom of your foot are so thick, the HPV virus can kind of hide out there undetected by your immune system,” says Mahmood.
Why some do-it-yourself wart remedies may work
Thanks to Dr. Google, people have become very creative with their cures. Mahmood has heard patients swear by certain remedies during office visits, and she shares a theory for why these treatments may actually work.
Most of the treatments for warts, especially the do-it-yourself wart treatments, are designed to irritate the skin.
“When you attack the wart with an irritant, you create inflammation, which brings that area of your body to your immune system’s attention. Once alerted, your immune system fights the HPV infection, eventually clearing it,” says Mahmood.
The jury is still out on just how duct tape works — although everyone and their uncle has a theory — but it is most likely an activation of your immune system that ultimately eliminates your plantar wart.
How the do-it-yourself process works
Most MacGyver-ish methods of wart removal involve soaking a cotton ball with a substance such as apple cider vinegar (or urine) and applying it to your plantar wart. The duct tape method uses duct tape to cover the wart completely.
In both cases, it’s best to soak the wart in water between applications to soften it, and then gently remove any dead tissue with an emery board or pumice stone to better penetrate through the many layers of skin.
Over time, your wart will become crusty and whitish and start to look less well-established. Small pieces will flake off. And eventually — somewhere between one and six months, depending on the individual — the whole wart will come out.
“The trick is irritating your skin enough to get your immune system’s attention without irritating it so much that you’re incapacitated,” says Mahmood.
When you should see a doctor for your wart instead
If you have any doubt that the ugly thing on the bottom of your foot is a plantar wart, it’s a good idea to see a doctor, who can take a skin biopsy to diagnose it. If your wart is ever dark in appearance or if you see bloody drainage or uneven borders, that is also worth a visit to the doctor, says Mahmood.
If you are immune-suppressed, such as transplant or cancer patients; on steroids for a medical condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis; or if your repeated efforts to remove the wart using home remedies just aren’t working after several months, you should consider going to a doctor.
“We do have a few tricks up our sleeves for moving things along a little faster,” says Mahmood.
And finally, see a doctor if your efforts to remove your plantar wart have made your skin so raw and irritated that you can’t function normally anymore.
“If your wart has turned into an open wound, then it’s time to see a doctor,” says Mahmood. “I would never advise someone to pour an irritant into an open wound and expect that to turn out well.”