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The Informed Parent

Warts, Frogs and Cats

by John H. Samson, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on May. 01, 1997
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"Young man, don't ever let me see you play with frogs!" Grandmother admonished. "You'll just get warts!"

Remembering this stern warning, Billy knew better than to consult his grandmother, the family medical guru, with his current problem. She would obviously accuse him of playing with frogs. More than likely she would also have an unsavory treatment that would either taste bad or smell putrid.

Grandpa, the fringe-medicine man, would have an approach to a cure that, although unauthorized by Grandmother, would prove less noxious and probably more interesting.

"Grandpa, I've got a wart on my finger. It must be treated before Grandma sees it and punishes me for playing with frogs. Then she'll treat me with some awful medicine." He looked at his understanding "buddy" hoping for some wisdom and a cure.

"Billy, that's a tough problem. I've had them too, but getting rid of them is not easy. You've got to get an old cat; not a kitten, you see. Take it out to a graveyard at night and toss it over your shoulder. The wart will be gone by sunrise. No smelly ointments, no foul-tasting potions like your Grandma would use. But don't tell her that I told you what to do. She wouldn't approve of my cure. She's a woman you know, and they approach things differently," he cautioned.

Billy smiled and thanked his Grandpa. As he walked away he thought, this is 1997! A person can't go around tossing cats. The Animal Rights people would make a fuss and, more importantly, the closest cemetery is 15 miles away! How could I ride a bike at night all that way, hanging on to a squalling cat? Then I would have to climb a fence to elude security just to fling old Tom cat over my shoulder. I'd have to recapture that darn cat, at great risk to myself, cart it all the way back and return it to our neighbor's yard. There's got to be a better way. Grandpa must have grown up where stray cats were everywhere and cemeteries were down the street. His folks must have thought nothing of letting him go to graveyards at night. What about Animal Rights back then? I don't have the solution to my wart. Guess I'll just cover it with a Band Aid so no one sees it. Maybe it will go away.

The next day, on the way to school, his best friend Joe asked, "What's the Band Aid for? You cut yourself?"

"No, I got a wart. If my Mom sees it she'll want to take me to the doctor, and he'll want to do something that will hurt."

"I know what you mean. He'll probably want to give you a shot or something." They both agreed the Band Aid was best for now and skateboarded off to school.

This little story summarizes the plight of the "Boy With a Wart." Things have changed since Grandpa's time, and even since Dad's era. It was common practice then to attack the lesion with electric cautery (burn it off with electrical current), or freeze it off. Most commonly, a scar would develop which remained for life; not to mention one had to endure the discomfort of the procedure.

In recent years the medical profession did less and observed more. This led to the discovery that, when left alone, the vast majority of common warts (veruccae vulgaris) spontaneously disappeared. Some warts took many months to do so, but they ultimately "melted away" while others vanished overnight. This gives us insight into how the myths of treatment were founded. An overnight spontaneous disappearance of the wart could seemingly be time-related to a ritual that had been performed.

There are still times when warts should be removed by a physician:

  1. If the wart is painfully irritated by routine activity.
  2. If it becomes repeatedly infected.
  3. If it is psychologically or emotionally disturbing to the patient (teen age girls and warts are not often compatible)
  4. If it is frequently traumatized with bleeding that is hard to control.

Current thinking on the cause of "spontaneous disappearance" is related to an appropriate immune response of the body. It is thought that the reason the lesion is present for such a long time is due to the fact that the immune system finds it difficult to recognize the viral invaders on the skin. Growth is at the outer most reaches of the body, the surface of the skin, making it less likely for white blood cells to migrate there and find the viral particles. When these scout cells do reach the area and identify the virus the immune system releases its weapons. At that time the wart is history.

It is interesting to note that irritation, trauma, or infection may hasten the arrival of the white blood cells. This, in turn, may cause viral identification and the wart's ultimate demise. With this in mind, we can see how some old time remedies worked. They irritated the lesion, provoked inflammation, drew the white blood cells to the site and the wart disappeared.

This is the way old remedies seemed to work. It is also the apparent method current over-the-counter treatments are effective. A trial of these medications is reasonable and should be free of side effects if directions are followed. If there is any question regarding the diagnosis it is always best to consult the child's physician before starting therapy.

When authoring a weekly child care column for a local newspaper I asked readers to send in folk remedies for the common wart. Here are four of many I received in response.

"When I was a young woman I noticed a wart on my thumb from the joint to the thumbnail. I showed it to my mother, who said, "Leave it alone, it will go away." But then we got talking about all the "old wives' tales" about warts. So I said, "Just for fun I'm going to try one, the bacon cure." According to tradition, I rubbed the wart with a bit of raw bacon and buried the bacon in a flower bed. A week or so later the wart was gone, and the skin was nice and smooth. We agreed that it was probably coincidence."

"I was very interested in reading the article concerning the second-grade boy who has warts. My son had warts on his fingers and knees that bothered him greatly. I read about using silver duct tape to remove warts. The instructions were to cover the wart with a piece of duct tape for one week, remove the tape for one day, then recover it for another week and so on, until the wart disappeared. With nothing to lose, we tried this and within a month my son was wart-free! I don't know why this worked for us but, happily enough, it did. There have been no reappearances of these or any other warts in the past 3 1/2 years, but if they do come, we have the duct tape ready for them!"

"I developed several warts on my hands. They bothered me so much I felt something had to be done. Although the dermatologist told me they would go away in due time, I found a doctor who would do something. He injected flu vaccine into the warts. Within several days they were gone, never to recur. Maybe it was coincidence, but they disappeared."

"Not long ago my son developed warts on his hands. It didn't bother him, but they concerned me greatly. Several doctors told me to wait for them to go away by themselves. My grandmother told me to tape chicken livers on the warts and leave them there for one week. I did and they were gone in four weeks. It may be coincidence but the warts were gone and that's all that matters."

Whether you use bacon, duct tape, flu vaccine injections, chicken livers or time, the warts will leave you. I'm not recommending any of the four "cures". Nevertheless, an occasional trip into folk medicine "keeps us honest". It emphasizes the fact that what seems curative may only be an illusion. Sometimes coincidence prevails and a child gets well despite our intervention.




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