What Is Molluscum Contagiosum?
The name sounds dramatic, like a Harry Potter spell. So if your doc says you have molluscum contagiosum, you probably expect it to be a big deal. Luckily, it’s not. For most people, molluscum contagiosum is a minor skin rash that goes away on its own after a while.
The rash looks like one or more small growths or wart-like bumps (called mollusca) that are usually pink, white, or skin-colored. The bumps typically are soft and smooth and may have an indented center.
Who Gets It?
As you might guess by its name, this skin disorder is contagious so it can easily be passed from one person to another. Teens who are most likely to get the infection are:
- certain athletes, such as wrestlers, swimmers, and gymnasts
- people whose immune systems have been weakened by HIV, cancer treatment, or long-term steroid use
How Do People Get it?
Molluscum contagiosum is caused by a virus with the same name. The virus thrives in warm, humid climates and in areas where people live very close together.
People get infected when the virus enters a small break in the skin’s surface. Many people who come in contact with the virus have immunity against it, so they don’t develop any growths. People who aren’t resistant to the infection usually see growths 2 to 8 weeks after infection.
Molluscum contagiosum spreads easily, most often through direct skin-to-skin contact. The virus can spread through water, and people also get it by touching objects that have the virus on them, such as clothing, towels, and bedding. The virus also can spread through sexual contact.
Once someone has molluscum contagiosum, it can spread from one part of the body to another when a person scratches or rubs the bumps and then touches another part of the body.
What Does It Look Like?
Because it’s a skin infection, the only real sign of molluscum contagiosum are the small round pink, white, or skin-colored mollusca on the skin. These bumps are filled with a white, waxy pus core that contains the virus, and might have a shiny or “pearly” look.
Each molluscum starts out as a very small spot, about the size of a pinhead, and grows over several weeks into a larger bump that might become as large as a pea or pencil eraser. A tiny dimple (indentation) often develops on the top of each molluscum.
The mollusca can appear alone as a single bump or in groups, clusters, or rows. They can show up almost anywhere on the skin.
Most people develop between 1 and 20 mollusca. They’re usually painless, but can become itchy, red, swollen, sore, and infected, especially if scratched.
How Is It Diagnosed and Treated?
A doctor is likely to recognize molluscum contagiosum just by looking at the rash. The doctor might refer you to a dermatologist, a doctor who specializes in skin diseases.
A doctor or dermatologist may take a sample of the bump to look at the cells under a microscope and confirm that the growths are mollusca, although most of the time doctors can tell what it is just by looking.
In many cases, doctors leave molluscum contagiosum to go away on its own without any need for treatment. Each individual molluscum typically disappears in about 2 to 3 months. However, new growths generally appear as old ones are going away. So it usually takes 6 to 18 months (and can take as long as 4 years) for molluscum contagiosum to go away completely.
Sometimes, doctors use treatments to remove the growths or help them go away more quickly, such as:
- removing the contagious center by squeezing the bumps with a scalpel or tweezers
- removing growths by freezing them or scraping them off with a sharp instrument
- applying a chemical agent or cream, such as salicylic acid, tretinoin, cantharidin, benzoyl peroxide, or other wart medicine
- use of a medicine called cimetidine, which is taken by mouth
Although these treatments can sometimes help the disease go away faster, most doctors do not use them because they can be painful and burn, blister, discolor, or scar the skin. Whether doctors treat molluscum depends on the location and number of lesions. Some people ask for treatment if the rash is embarrassing or causes other problems, such as itching.
Treatment works best when started early when there are only a few growths. Your doctor will talk with you about the advantages and disadvantages of treatment and help you decide whether treatment is necessary. Don’t try removing the bumps yourself as this could spread the infection.
Does It Cause Other Problems?
Molluscum contagiosum doesn’t usually cause any long-term problems. The growths typically don’t leave any marks. Treatments might scar the skin, though, and some people develop an infection that needs to be treated with antibiotics.
People with weakened immune systems can sometimes get a more serious form of molluscum contagiosum. They typically have more mollusca, especially on the face. The growths are larger, look different, and usually are more difficult to treat. In these cases, doctors might prescribe medications that help strengthen the immune system.
How Can I Avoid Spreading It?
You can do a few things to prevent molluscum contagiosum from spreading to other parts of your body (or to other people):
- Don’t touch, scratch, or rub growths.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water.
- Keep areas with growths clean.
- Try to cover each growth with clothing or a watertight bandage, especially before activities in which equipment is shared or skin contact can occur, like swimming and wrestling.
- Change each bandage daily or when it becomes dirty.
- Do not shave over areas that have bumps.
- Moisturize your skin if it’s dry.
As long as you follow these precautions until all of the bumps are gone, you can still go to school and play sports.
It is unknown how long the rash and virus may be contagious. A person can get molluscum contagiosum again through contact with an infected person, but it’s rare for this to happen.
Health experts recommend these tips to help avoid the infection:
- Wash hands often with soap and water.
- Do not share towels, clothing, and other personal items.
- Do not share kickboards and other water toys at swimming facilities.
- Do not touch or scratch bumps or blisters on your skin or other people’s skin.
Reviewed by: Patrice Hyde, MD
Date reviewed: April 2013