Molluscum contagiosum is a skin infection caused by a virus of the same name. It produces benign, raised bumps, or lesions, on the upper layers of your skin.
The small bumps are usually painless. They resolve without treatment and rarely leave scars. The length of time the virus lasts varies for each person, but the bumps can remain from 2 months to 4 years.
Molluscum contagiosum (M. contagiosum) transmits between people through direct skin contact with someone who has the virus or by touching an object that the virus has contaminated, like a towel or a piece of clothing.
Medication and surgical treatments are available, but you won’t need them most of the time. The virus can be more difficult to treat or cause more severe effects if you have a weakened immune system.
In this article, we explain the symptoms, causes, and treatments for molluscum contagiosum.
If you or your child comes into contact with the M. contagiosum virus, you may not see symptoms of infection for up to 6 months. These symptoms usually take between 2 and 7 weeks to show from the moment you acquire the molluscum contagiosum virus.
You may notice the appearance of a small group of painless lesions. These bumps can appear alone or in a patch of as many as 20. They’re usually:
- very small, shiny, and smooth in appearance
- flesh-colored, white, or pink
- firm and shaped like a dome with a dent or dimple in the middle
- filled with a central core of waxy material
2 to 5 millimeters in diameter, or between the size of the head of a pin and the size of an eraser on the top of a pencil
- present anywhere except on the palms of your hands or the soles of your feet — specifically on the face, abdomen, torso, arms, and legs of children, or the inner thigh, genitals, and abdomen of adults
Most presentations of molluscum contagiosum heal without treatment. But some people experience complications, including:
- impetigo, or a skin infection that develops after scratching the lesions
- conjunctivitis, an eye infection that may develop if lesions occur on the eyelid
- disseminated secondary eczema, which might occur as a result of overreaction to the virus by your immune system
- widespread molluscum contagiosum that are larger than usual, often on the face (this often develops in people with reduced immunity)
- sudden scarring with a pitted appearance, either spontaneously or due to lesion removal surgery
Molluscum contagiosum occurs when you acquire the M. contagiosum virus, a type of poxvirus.
This virus can transmit between people while lesions are visible. It’s also possible to transmit the virus from one area of skin on your own body to another part.
There are a number of ways that M. contagiosum passes between people, including:
- Skin contact with a person who carries the infection. You can get molluscum contagiosum by touching the lesions on the skin of a person who has this infection. Children can transmit the virus during normal play with other children. Teens and adults are more likely to contract it through sexual contact. You can also become infected during contact sports that involve touching bare skin, like wrestling or football.
- Contact with surfaces that a person with molluscum contagiosum has touched. The virus can survive on surfaces that has made contact with the skin. It’s possible to contract the virus by handling contaminated towels, clothing, toys, or other items.
- Sharing sports equipment that has had contact with a person who has molluscum contagiosum. The virus can remain on equipment for transmission to another person. This includes items like baseball gloves, wrestling mats, and football helmets.
- Internal spread. If you have molluscum contagiosum, you might spread the infection throughout your body. You can transfer the virus from one part of your body to another by touching, scratching, or shaving a bump and then touching another part of your body.
Transmission seems to take place more in wet environments, like during children’s shared swimming classes. If skin lesions are no longer visible, the virus can no longer pass from your body to that of another person.
Anyone can get molluscum contagiosum, but certain groups of people are more likely to acquire the virus and experience symptoms than others. These groups include:
- children between the ages of
1 and 10 years
- people who live in tropical climates
- people with weakened immune systems due to organ transplants, cancer treatments, or living with health issues that affect the immune system like HIV
- people who have atopic dermatitis, a common form of eczema that causes scaly, itchy rashes
- people who participate in contact sports in which skin-to-skin contact is common, like wrestling or football,
The skin bumps caused by molluscum contagiosum have a distinct appearance. For this reason, your doctor can often diagnose molluscum contagiosum by physically examining the affected area.
They may confirm the diagnosis using a skin scraping or biopsy.
You should always have your doctor examine any skin lesions that last longer than a few days, even though molluscum contagiosum is unlikely to require treatment. A confirmed diagnosis of molluscum contagiosum will rule out other causes for the lesions, like:
Most people with a healthy immune system won’t need to seek treatment for molluscum contagiosum. These bumps usually fade away without medical intervention.
When to see a doctor about molluscum contagiosum
Some circumstances may make you a good candidate for treatment:
- your lesions are large and located on your face and neck
- you have an existing health problem that causes skin effects, like atopic dermatitis
- you have concerns about spreading the virus
- you’ve received treatment or acquired a health problem that reduces your immune activity
Medical treatments for molluscum contagiosum
A doctor can perform one of several effective treatments for molluscum contagiosum. These include:
- Cryotherapy. The doctor freezes each bump with liquid nitrogen.
- Curettage. The doctor pierces the bump and scrapes it off the skin with a small tool.
- Laser therapy. The doctor uses a laser to destroy each bump.
- Topical therapy. The doctor applies creams containing acids or chemicals to the bumps to induce peeling of the top layers of the skin. Topical therapy creams may contain iodine and salicylic acid, tretinoin, cantharidin (a blistering agent that a doctor usually applies), and imiquimod (T cell modifier)
These techniques can be painful and cause scarring for some people. Anesthesia may also be necessary during the procedure.
Since these methods involve treating each bump, a procedure may require more than one session. If you have many large bumps, additional treatment may be necessary every 3 to 6 weeks until the bumps disappear. New bumps may appear as the existing ones heal.
Prescribed medications for molluscum contagiosum
In some cases, your doctor may prescribe the following medications:
- creams that contain iodine and salicylic acid or potassium hydroxide
- trichloroacetic acid
- topical podophyllotoxin cream (Condylox)
- cantharidin (Cantharone), a blistering agent that a doctor usually applies
- imiquimod (Aldara), a T cell modifier (although the
Centers for Disease Control and Preventiondon’t recommend its use in children, as it hasn’t been proven effective and can cause severe side effects)
If you’re pregnant, planning to become pregnant, or are breastfeeding or chestfeeding, let your doctor know about your status before taking these medications or any others. For example, podophyllotoxin cream may be safe for people assigned male at birth, but people who are pregnant should avoid it, as its ingredients might be toxic to your fetus.
Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is the most effective treatment for people who live with HIV if they contract molluscum contagiosum. It can help strengthen the immune system and fight the virus.
Seek consultation with your doctor before attempting any treatments for molluscum contagiosum.
In people with a healthy immune system, molluscum contagiosum will usually resolve without treatment. Typically, this happens gradually within 6 to 12 months and without scarring.
But for some, it may take from a few months up to a few years for the bumps to disappear. The infection can be more persistent and last even longer for people with immune system problems.
Once the lesions fade, the M. contagiosum virus is no longer present in your body. When this happens, you can’t spread the virus to other people or parts of your body. You’ll only see more bumps if another infection develops.
If you’ve had molluscum contagiosum once, you can still get the infection again.
The best way to prevent getting molluscum contagiosum is to avoid touching the skin of another person who has the infection. Following these suggestions can also help you prevent the spread of the infection:
- Practice effective hand washing with warm water and soap.
- Instruct children in hand-washing techniques since they’re more likely to use touch in play and interaction with others.
- Avoid sharing personal items. This includes towels, clothing, hairbrushes, or bar soaps.
- Avoid using shared sports gear that may have come in direct contact with someone else’s bare skin.
- Avoid picking at or touching areas of your skin where the bumps are visible.
- Keep the bumps clean and covered to prevent yourself or others from touching them and spreading the virus.
- Avoid shaving or using electrolysis where the bumps are located.
- Avoid sexual contact if you have bumps in the genital area.