Skin Tag vs HPV: What's the Difference?
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- Written by Dr. Andrea Pinto on August 23th, 2021
Skin tags and HPV warts can look very similar, and many people may not even know that they’re two separate conditions with different causes. Both of these conditions can cause similar growths on the skin, but there are several characteristics that can allow you to differentiate between them.
Read on to learn more about skin tags vs. HPV. What’s the difference between them?
Skin tag vs HPV: What’s the difference?
Skin tags and HPV warts can look very similar. However, there are certain characteristics that can help you distinguish between the two.
Most HPV warts are flat, as opposed to skin tags, which generally have a thin stalk that resembles a “stem”, which connects the skin tag to the rest of your skin. HPV warts are generally contagious, while skin tags aren’t — they’re more likely to be related to a hormonal or metabolic condition. Additionally, skin tags are usually found in skin folds, such as the neck or groin.
Despite the fact that skin tags and HPV aren’t the same thing, they can be related in some cases. A study published by the British Journal of Dermatology found HPV DNA in a large percentage of the skin tags they studied; however, more research is needed to fully understand this correlation.
Typically, the same methods can be used to remove both skin tags and HPV warts. These methods include:
- Scissor removal (for acrochordons)
- Laser removal
- Topical salicylic acid
Fortunately, most cases of skin tags and HPV skin warts are completely benign, but it’s always a good idea to seek medical assistance if you notice any changes to your skin that concern you.
Prevention is the best medicine, and a physician will be able to examine you and determine whether there’s anything to be worried about — especially since there are many other conditions that can cause skin changes, from herpes to skin cancer. And if you simply want to get a benign skin lesion removed, discussing this possibility will always be your best option.
What is a skin tag?
Skin tags are actually called acrochordons. According to the NIH National Cancer Institute, acrochordons are small, benign growths on the skin that may have a stalk or peduncle.
Acrochordons are typically small, and look like a cluster of skin tissue that extends from a small stalk. These noncancerous growths are usually the same color as the rest of your skin. However, they can also be a few shades darker than your skin tone, making them look more like moles.
Skin tags are usually asymptomatic, although they can become painful or swollen if there’s skin irritation in the affected area.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, acrochordons form in areas where skin constantly rubs against itself. The most common locations for skin tags include:
- Axilla (armpit)
- Inframammary (below the breasts)
Skin tags are very common. In fact, the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology estimates that approximately half of all adults have at least one skin tag. Skin tags are more common among people with diabetes and/or obesity, and those with a family history of skin tags. A correlation has also been found between numerous acrochordons and high cholesterol levels.
The exact cause of skin tags is unknown, although it has been theorized that the constant friction that occurs in skin folds can play a role in their development. Additionally, insulin resistance could also be involved in this process. Hormonal imbalances and skin aging could also affect the formation of skin tags.
Acrochordons are harmless and don’t have to be removed, although you can still choose to have them removed for aesthetic purposes. According to Medscape, only a minimal percentage of acrochordons have been found to be related to malignant conditions such as basal or squamous cell carcinoma.
What is HPV?
Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the name of a group of viruses that affects a significant percentage of the world’s population. HPV skin warts are spread through skin-to-skin contact.
Keep in mind that there are more than 150 known strains of HPV, and only some of them cause skin warts. Other strains of HPV can cause genital warts, and even certain types of cancer. According to The New Zealand HPV Project, having contact with the HPV strains that cause genital warts doesn’t seem to lead to genital warts. These strains are spread during genital contact, or vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
HPV causes common skin warts. According to Harvard Health Publishing, these warts can have different characteristics, such as:
- Diverse color range (white, pink, beige, or brown)
- Cauliflower-like shape
- Rough and raised, or flat bumps
- Varying sizes
- HPV warts can affect any part of the body, although they’re more common in the hands and feet, or around the mouth
Although HPV warts are usually asymptomatic, they can be prone to bleeding if the area is irritated. Many people who are infected with HPV are completely asymptomatic, although they can still transmit the virus to other people. A large percentage of HPV infections are cleared by our own immune systems within two years of infection.
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