Molluscum contagiosum is a wart-like rash that isn’t usually harmful, but can scar the skin in rare cases. The skin condition is most common in children ages 1 to 10. A virus known as a poxvirus causes the condition. When there are several bumps, doctors call them mollusca.

The condition is contagious and can spread from person to person. Objects called fomites also spread the virus. These are household and other items the virus can live on. Examples include:

  • clothing
  • towels
  • toys
  • gym equipment
  • pool equipment

Here’s a look at the symptoms and treatment options for molluscum contagiosum.

What Are the Symptoms of Molluscum Contagiosum?

Molluscum contagiosum causes a child to develop bumps on the skin. They may be pink, flesh-colored, or white. They are wart-like in appearance. You may see these bumps anywhere on your child’s skin — they aren’t typically located in a certain area of the body. But they’re less likely to be on the soles of the feet, or palms of the hands.

Other characteristics of molluscum contagiosum include:

  • alone or in bunches
  • appear pearl-like
  • dimpled in the center of the bumps
  • firm to the touch
  • occasionally itchy, red, sore, and/or swollen
  • raised
  • range in size from 2 to 5 millimeters (as large as a pencil eraser)
  • smooth

Typically, children with molluscum contagiosum will have between 10 and 20 bumps on their skin. But children who have an impaired immune system may have more. They’re usually painless, but kids can have a tendency to scratch at the bumps. This can lead to infection, irritation, and itching.

How Is Molluscum Contagiosum Diagnosed?

Doctors can typically diagnose mollusca by conducting a physical exam and looking at the lesions. If a doctor isn’t sure the lesions are definitely mollusca, they may take a scraping of the skin to examine it under a microscope.

What Are the Risk Factors of Molluscum Contagiosum?

Children who are at greater risk for molluscum contagiosum include:

  • children with atopic dermatitis
  • children with weakened immune systems
  • gymnasts (the mats can spread the virus)
  • people who live in warm, humid climates where the virus is easily spread
  • kids who share clothing and/or towels
  • swimmers
  • wrestlers

Kids can easily spread the virus because they may scratch or rub at the bumps, which makes the virus easier to transmit. But because the condition is contagious and occurs from skin-to-skin contact, children can get it even without risk factors. Researchers aren’t sure if the lesions have to be open, or if simply touching a lesion can spread the virus.

How Is Molluscum Contagiosum Treated?

Sometimes, doctors won’t recommend any treatment for mollusca. They will typically go away on their own over time, but it can take up to a year or longer. Sometimes, treatments can be difficult to maintain or painful for children. Also, the treatments can scar the skin in rare cases, or lead to infection.

If your doctor doesn’t recommend treating the mollusca, there are ways you can reduce your child’s risk for spreading them. These include:

  • washing the growths with soap and water
  • covering each growth with a watertight bandage or clothing, especially before participating in athletic activities
  • changing the bandages daily
  • moisturizing the skin with a gentle, unscented moisturizer to prevent the skin from drying out
  • washing your child’s hands (and your own hands) often with soap and water

Treatments are usually in two categories: topical medicines and surgical removal. These treatments are most effective when you first notice the bumps on your child, before they potentially spread.

Topical Medications

Topical medicines applied to your child’s skin can dissolve the bump or make it easier to remove. Examples of medications used to treat mollusca legions include:

  • adapalene (Differin)
  • tretinoin
  • potassium hydroxide
  • salicylic acid
  • tazarotene (Tazorac, Avage) imiquimod
  • cantharidin (Cantherone)

In most cases, a doctor would only prescribe these medications to an older child. But a doctor may recommend treatment for younger children who have many bumps, a weakened immune system, or bumps on the face. Cantharidin causes blistering of the skin and is only applied in a doctor’s office.

Surgical Procedures

Surgical procedures involve manually removing the mollusca lesions from a child’s skin. These methods might include scraping the skin, freezing the lesions so they fall off, or laser therapy. These methods can be painful to a child.

Prevention of Molluscum Contagiosum

Encouraging your child to engage in frequent handwashing with soap and water can help to prevent mollusca. Refrain from sharing items, such as:

  • towels
  • clothing
  • spoons
  • bottles
  • toys
  • other personal care items

If your child is old enough, you can teach them not to scratch at bumps on their skin, or on another child’s skin.

The Takeaway

Once the mollusca lesions are gone, they can’t be transmitted further. The virus doesn’t remain in the body, so a child wouldn’t get the condition again unless they came in contact with another infected child. 

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