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Finding warts anywhere on your body is an unpleasant experience, but many people find them especially unpleasant in the oral cavity. Warts on the tongue or elsewhere in your mouth are not especially common, but when they do appear, they can sometimes seem to have come from nowhere. Here’s what you need to know if you have noticed any bumps, lumps or warts anywhere in your mouth or on your tongue.

The Common Wart

HPV, a double-stranded DNA virus with over 100 different strains, is the culprit that causes warts. Verruca vulgaris, or the common wart, most often appears on the hands, fingers, knees and elbows. A small cut or opening in the skin allows the virus to gain entry, and it can be transmitted to other sites on the body by scratching, shaving or breaking the skin.

The Mayo Clinic says that in many cases, the body’s immune system will stop the HPV virus from developing a wart. According to an article in the Bosnian Journal of Medical Sciences, the peak occurrence of these warts is between the ages of 12 and 16. However, the article also states that this type of wart is rarely found on the tongue.

Oral Warts

The majority of oral warts that develop in the mouth or on the tongue are classified as oral condyloma acuminatum (venereal warts) caused by HPV 6, 11 and 12. These warts are spread by kissing and oral-genital contact and are more common in people with compromised immune systems, such as individuals with HIV. Although, most oral nonvenereal warts are seen in children who also have warts on their hands, according to an article in the Journal of Maxillofacial and Oral Surgery. By chewing the warts on their fingers or hand, the virus is easily transported to the oral cavity. A wart in your mouth may interfere with eating, as it can be irritated by food or accidental biting, and warts are often sore and uncomfortable as they develop.

Treatment for Oral Warts

Warts frequently disappear without treatment, but it could take up to two years. Topical creams are usually ineffective, especially in the oral cavity. Freezing warts with cryotherapy, meaning injecting them with interferon alpha, or laser removal are painful remedies. However, an article in the Journal of Cancer Research and Therapeutics reports that surgical removal of oral warts is the recommended treatment.

While options for home remedies are limited, Medscape notes that applying a few drops of tea tree oil to the wart several times a day or rubbing it with a clove of raw garlic have both shown promise in limited studies. Your dentist will have the best suggestions as to what you can use to help soothe any discomfort until the wart goes away or you have it removed.

Oral Cancer Risk

Oral cancer is most often linked to heavy smoking and alcohol consumption, but there has been an increase in oropharyngeal cancer linked to the sexually transmitted HPV 16. This cancer affects the back of the mouth, throat and tonsils, and because the symptoms are subtle, it is difficult to detect. White men who are nonsmoking and between the ages of 35 and 55 are at highest risk. Those with weakened immune systems from diseases like HIV or who are taking medications for organ transplants also have an increased risk, as do those who have numerous sexual partners and participate in unprotected oral sex.

HPV vaccines are available today that help prevent the HPV viruses that cause genital warts, oropharyngeal cancer and cancers around the genital area. Boys and girls should receive the vaccine before age 13; however, it can be given up to age 26.

Although warts on the tongue or within your mouth are usually harmless, it can be challenging to distinguish them from the more serious symptoms of oral cancer. For that reason, it’s imperative you see your dentist any time you notice unusual lumps or patches in your mouth that don’t go away within two weeks.