What is molluscum contagiosum?
Molluscum contagiosum is a skin infection that causes small pearly or flesh-colored bumps. The bumps may be clear, and the center often is indented. The infection is caused by a virus. The virus is easily spread but is not harmful.
This infection is most common in children, especially those younger than age 12. In teens and young adults, it usually is a sexually transmitted infection. But wrestlers, swimmers, gymnasts, massage therapists, and people who use steam rooms and saunas also can get it.
The infection is more common in warm, humid climates with crowded living conditions.
How does it spread?
The molluscum contagiosum virus commonly spreads through skin-to-skin contact. This includes sexual contact or touching the bumps and then touching the skin. Touching an object that has the virus on it, such as a towel, also can spread the infection.
The virus can spread from one part of the body to another. Or it can spread to other people, such as among children at day care or school. The infection is contagious until the bumps are gone.
The time from exposure to the virus until the bumps appear usually is 2 to 7 weeks. But in some cases it can take up to 6 months.
What are the symptoms?
Molluscum contagiosum causes small pearly or flesh-colored bumps.
The bumps are round with a dimple in the center. They are a little smaller in size than the eraser on the end of a pencil. The bumps don't cause pain. They may appear alone or in groups. They most often appear on the trunk, face, eyelids, or genital area. The bumps may become inflamed and turn red as your body fights the virus.
People who have a weakened immune system may have dozens of larger bumps. These may need special treatment.
How is it diagnosed?
To diagnose molluscum contagiosum, your doctor will do a physical exam and may take a sample of the bumps for testing. If you have bumps in your genital area, your doctor may check for other sexually transmitted infections, such as genital herpes.
How is molluscum contagiosum treated?
In most cases, molluscum contagiosum doesn't need to be treated. The bumps usually go away on their own in 6 to 9 months.
But people sometimes ask that the condition be treated, especially if it lasts a long time—the bumps can sometimes last for years. And doctors usually recommend treatment for these bumps if they are in the genital area. This prevents them from spreading.
If you need treatment, your choices may include:
- Freezing the bumps. This is called cryotherapy or cryosurgery.
- Scraping off the bumps. This is called curettage.
- Putting a chemical on the bumps, like cantharidin or potassium hydroxide.
- Using medicines (liquids or creams), such as those used to treat warts.
Children may not need treatment, because the infection usually goes away on its own. But if your child needs treatment, talk to the doctor about how to prevent pain and scarring.
How can you prevent it?
To prevent molluscum contagiosum from spreading:
- Try not to scratch.
- Put a piece of tape or a bandage over the bumps.
- Don't share towels or washcloths.
- If the bumps are on your face, don't shave.
- If the bumps are in your genital area, avoid sexual contact.
Current as of: March 3, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine