Skin tags and many warts are similar in that they protrude from the skin. Aesthetically unpleasant and sometimes uncomfortable, skin tags and warts may appear to have a lot in common. However, the cause of these two skin growths–as well as who typically gets them–are very different.
What Are Skin Tags?
Skin tags may also be called acrochordons or fibroepithelial polyps. The National Institutes of Health describes skin tags as small, skin-colored growths that protrude from the skin. Skin tags may have a short, narrow stalk connecting them to the epidermis. Although most are very small, the NIH notes that some may be 1/2 inch in length. Skin tags don't grow larger or change in physical presentation. These growths are typically found wherever the skin creases: the armpits, the neck and other areas of the body. They generally don't hurt, but they can be irritated by shaving or repeated chafing from your clothing.
What Are Warts?
Warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which affects the outer layer of the skin and causes a benign growth, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Warts have a variety of presentations. They can be flesh-colored protrusions or flat, dark and smooth. The way a wart looks depends on the body part on which it grows, explains the AAD. For example, plantar warts, which affect the soles of the feet, are flat due to the pressure exerted on the feet by the body's weight. Some warts, such as common warts, have a small black dot in the center of the growth that looks like a seed. Flat warts, on the other hand, are small and smooth and tend to occur in great numbers, says the AAD.
Who Gets Them?
Cutaneous skin tags generally occur after midlife, says the NIH, and tend to be more prevalent in diabetics and those who are obese. Skin tags are common to the aging process, says the Mayo Clinic, along with other changes, such as age (sun) spots. Although no one is immune to the strains of HPV that causes warts, according to the Mayo Clinic, children and young adults are more likely to get plantar warts and common warts on their hands and around the fingernails. Those with compromised immune systems are more at risk for some types of warts as well.
The biggest difference between skin tags and warts is that skin tags can't spread to other parts of the body or other people; warts, however, are contagious. The AAD notes that while warts are rarely passed from person to person, they can be spread indirectly and multiply in number. The AAD points to flat warts, which can number between 20 and 100 at a time. In adults, these are most prevalent under the beard area in men and on the legs in women. Repeated shaving, which spreads HPV to other parts of the skin, is most likely the cause. Another characteristic of warts is that many times they simply go away on their own. The AAD states that warts can disappear for between several months or sometimes years in children. Warts in adults generally linger a bit longer. Skin tags, on the other hand, don't resolve.
Skin tags generally don't need to be treated, says the NIH, unless its for cosmetic purposes or if the growths become repeatedly irritated, such as by repeated shaving. Skin tags may be removed surgically or by cryotherapy (application of liquid nitrogen, otherwise known as "freezing") or electrical cauterization. The AAD states that all warts don't necessarily need to be treated, however, those that spread over the body rapidly or that are particularly painful should be removed. Wart treatment depends on the patient's age and body part affected. A dermatologist may recommend at-home application of salicylic acid, for example, if the patient is a child. Sometimes a blistering agent called cantharidin is applied to the wart in a doctor's office. Warts may also be treated using the same medical procedures used for skin tags, namely surgery, freezing and cauterization.