What is molluscum contagiosum?
Molluscum contagiosum is a skin infection that causes small pearly or flesh-colored bumps. The center of the bump is often indented. The infection is caused by a virus. The virus is easily spread but is not harmful.
This infection is most common in children. But teens and adults can also get it, often from taking part in sports like wrestling and gymnastics or from sexual contact. And it can occur in people with a weak immune system.
The infection is more common in warm, humid climates.
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 infection usually goes away within 6 to 18 months.
But people sometimes ask that the condition be treated, especially if it lasts a long time—the bumps can sometimes last for several years. And doctors usually recommend treatment for any bumps in the genital area to prevent spread to sexual partners. People with weakened immune systems also are usually treated.
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. But if your child needs treatment, talk to the doctor about how to prevent pain, scarring, and changes in skin color (pigment) from treatment.
How can you prevent it?
To prevent molluscum contagiosum from spreading:
- Wash your hands.
- Try not to touch, scratch, or pick at the bumps.
- Cover the bumps with a bandage, medical tape, or clothing when around other people.
- 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 22, 2023
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine