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.
What are the symptoms?
The small, round, indented bumps are usually about 0.1 in. (2.5 mm) to 0.2 in. (5.1 mm) in size (a little smaller than a pencil eraser). 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. People who have a weakened immune system may have dozens of bumps. The bumps may become inflamed and turn red as your body fights the virus.
The time from exposure to the virus until the bumps appear usually is 2 to 7 weeks, but it can take up to 6 months.1
How does molluscum contagiosum spread?
The 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.
Molluscum contagiosum in a child's genital area is common, usually because the child scratched the area. But sometimes it can be a sign of sexual abuse, especially if the doctor also sees other signs of sexual abuse.
To prevent molluscum contagiosum from spreading:
- Try not to scratch.
- Put a piece of tape or a bandage over the bumps.
- Do not 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.
How is it diagnosed?
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 diseases, such as genital herpes.
How is it treated?
Healthy people may not need treatment for molluscum contagiosum, because the bumps usually go away on their own in 2 to 4 months. Some people choose to remove the bumps because they don't like how the bumps look or they don't want to spread the virus to other people. Doctors usually recommend treatment for bumps in the genital area to prevent them from spreading.
If you need treatment, your choices may include:
- Draining or scraping the bumps.
- Freezing the bumps.
- Putting medicine on the skin.
- Taking medicine by mouth.
Who gets molluscum contagiosum?
Molluscum contagiosum is most common in children. It usually is seen in children ages 2 to 12 years.2, 3 In teens and young adults, it usually is a sexually transmitted disease. But wrestlers, swimmers, gymnasts, massage therapists, and people who use steam rooms and saunas also can get it.
Molluscum contagiosum is more common in warm, humid climates with crowded living conditions.
Frequently Asked Questions
Learning about molluscum contagiosum:
Symptoms of molluscum contagiosum include bumps that are:
- Small, round, and often indented in the center.
- Usually pearly and flesh-colored. The bumps may be either clear or red and inflamed.
- Usually about 0.1 in. (2.5 mm) to 0.2 in. (5.1 mm) in size (a little smaller than a pencil eraser).
- Sometimes filled with a thick white material.
- Alone or in a group. They are often seen in groups (from a few to 20 or 30) in one or two areas.
- Most often found on the trunk, face, eyelids, or genital area in temperate climates and on extremities in the tropics. In children, bumps usually appear on the trunk, face, and arms. In sexually active teens and young adults, the bumps are usually located in the genital area.4
- Sometimes itchy.
Bumps usually go away on their own in 2 to 4 months, although they may last longer.
Bumps may develop along with eczema, and you may not notice the bumps as much as the eczema.
- Can be large—up to 15 mm (0.6 in.) in size.
- Appear in large numbers. For example, there can be 100 or more bumps on the face.
- Are aggravated by shaving.
- Do not usually go away on their own.
- Are hard to treat.
- Can mimic other serious diseases of people with HIV infection (such as deep fungal infection).
Exams and Tests
Molluscum contagiosum is usually diagnosed during a physical exam. If you have bumps in your genital area, your doctor may check for other sexually transmitted diseases, such as genital herpes. Some doctors may consider testing for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) if you are at risk for the condition and you have bumps on your face or other symptoms of a severe case of molluscum contagiosum.
A biopsy may be done if the diagnosis is unclear and other conditions are suspected.
Treatment for molluscum contagiosum is not always needed because most bumps will go away within 2 to 4 months, although they may last longer. But if bumps are visible or embarrassing, or in order to prevent their spread, you may want them removed. Removal or other treatment is recommended for bumps in the genital area.
Treatment varies depending on your age and health and the location of the bumps. There has been little research on how well any of the treatments work or how they compare to each other.5
Nonprescription treatment includes:
- Salicylic acid. You apply this nonprescription medicine directly to the bumps. It is usually not painful and is often regarded as the first treatment to try.3
Self-administered prescription medicine includes:
- Imiquimod, a form of immunotherapy. Immunotherapy triggers your immune system to fight the virus causing the skin growth. Imiquimod is applied 3 times a week, left on the skin for 6 to 10 hours, and washed off. A course may last from 4 to 16 weeks. Small studies have shown that it is successful about 80% of the time.6
- Topical medicines such as podofilox (Condylox) and tretinoin (Avita, Renova). These medicines are put directly on the bumps. Podofilox is more often used in the treatment of genital warts.
Treatment by your doctor includes:
- Manual extrusion. Viral material is removed by squeezing the bumps with fingers or a forceps. This is done carefully by a doctor to avoid scarring and to keep the infection from spreading.
- Curettage. The viral material in the center of the bump is scraped out. A local or topical anesthetic can be used to numb the area. A small scraping instrument called a curette is used to quickly remove the bumps. This procedure is very effective and not too painful. It may cause scarring.
- Topical medicines. Your doctor applies a chemical to the bumps. This destroys the top layers of the skin, allowing a new layer to form. When the chemical is applied, you may feel a burning sensation. Side effects may include mild scarring. How often and how long the chemical is applied will vary. Chemicals used include trichloroacetic acid, podophyllin resin, potassium hydroxide, and cantharidin. Trichloroacetic acid is often used in people with a weak immune system. Cantharidin causes the bumps to blister and go away. It may cause pain as the blister develops. Cantharidin is considered safe and effective.7
- Cryotherapy. The bump is frozen with liquid nitrogen. A local anesthetic may be used to numb the area. The liquid nitrogen is sprayed or applied with a cotton-tip applicator for 5 or more seconds. This procedure usually is not too painful, is not as likely as curettage to cause scarring, and usually is effective. Often, more than one treatment is needed.
- Laser surgery. Bumps can be removed through laser surgery.
Treatment for children
Treatment is not always needed for children because molluscum contagiosum usually goes away on its own. Whether to treat depends on many factors. For example, if a bump is near a child's eye, it may be treated to prevent conjunctivitis—or it may not be treated, to avoid possible eye damage. Pain caused by treatment and the potential for scarring are important considerations when deciding about treatment for children.
Although it is acceptable to leave molluscum contagiosum untreated, treatment helps to prevent the spread of the virus to other parts of the body or to other people.
Initial treatment options for children include manual extrusion, cryotherapy, curettage, and topical medicine.
Treatment in the genital area
Molluscum contagiosum in the genital area is often treated to prevent spreading through sexual activity. Common treatment procedures include cryotherapy, curettage, or imiquimod.
Treatment for people with other medical conditions
If you have molluscum contagiosum and an impaired immune system, treatment will usually be advised to help prevent the spread and severity of the bumps. But the bumps are often difficult to treat. The main treatment options are manual extrusion, cryotherapy, curettage, oral medicine, or topical medicines. Treatments for widespread, difficult-to-treat cases include laser therapy and trichloroacetic acid.
Home treatment for molluscum contagiosum involves taking care of the bumps if they have been treated and preventing them from spreading to other parts of your body or to others.
If the bumps have been treated, it is important to keep the area clean and protected. Ask your doctor for specific instructions.
To prevent molluscum contagiosum from spreading:
- Try not to scratch. Put a piece of tape or a bandage over any bumps.
- Avoid contact sports, swimming pools, and shared baths.
- Do not share towels or washcloths.
- If bumps are on the face, avoid shaving.
- If bumps are on the genital area, avoid sexual activity.
Other Places To Get Help
|American Academy of Dermatology|
|P.O. Box 4014|
|Schaumburg, IL 60618-4014|
|Phone:||1-866-503-SKIN (1-866-503-7546) toll-free
The American Academy of Dermatology provides information about the care of skin, hair, and nails. You can find a dermatologist in your area by calling 1-888-462-DERM (1-888-462-3376).
|American Social Health Association|
|P.O. Box 13827|
|Research Triangle Park, NC 27709|
|E-mail:||email@example.com (general information)|
The mission of the American Social Health Association is to improve the health of individuals, families, and communities, with a focus on preventing sexually transmitted diseases and their harmful consequences.
|Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)|
|1600 Clifton Road|
|Atlanta, GA 30333|
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The CDC works with state and local health officials and the public to achieve better health for all people. The CDC creates the expertise, information, and tools that people and communities need to protect their health—by promoting health, preventing disease, injury, and disability, and being prepared for new health threats.
- American Academy of Pediatrics (2006). Molluscum contagiosum. In LK Pickering et al., eds., Red Book: 2006 Report of the Committee on Infectious Diseases, 27th ed., p. 463. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics.
- Braue A, et al. (2005). Epidemiology and impact of childhood molluscum contagiosum: A case series and critical review of the literature. Pediatric Dermatology, 22(4): 287–294.
- Sladden MJ, Johnston GA (2004). Common skin infections in children. BMJ, 329(7457): 95–99.
- Habif TP, et al. (2005). Molluscum contagiosum. In Skin Disease: Diagnosis and Treatment, 2nd ed., pp. 194–197. Philadelphia: Elsevier Mosby.
- Stulberg DL, Hutchinson AG (2003). Molluscum contagiosum and warts. American Family Physician, 67(6): 1233–1240.
- Tyring SK (2003). Molluscum contagiosum: The importance of early diagnosis and treatment. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 189(3 Suppl): S12–S16.
- Habif TP (2004). Molluscum contagiosum. In Clinical Dermatology: A Color Guide to Diagnosis and Therapy, 4th ed., pp. 344–345. Philadelphia: Mosby.
Other Works Consulted
- McKenna DB, Benton EC (2006). Molluscum contagiosum. In MG Lebwohl et al., eds., Treatment of Skin Disease, 2nd ed., pp. 399–401. London: Mosby Elsevier.
- Tom W, Friedlander SF (2008). Molluscipoxvirus infection: Molluscum contagiosum section of Poxvirus infections. In K Wolff et al., eds., Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in General Medicine, 7th ed., vol. 2, pp. 1911–1913. New York: McGraw-Hill Medical.
|Author||Maria G. Essig, MS, ELS|
|Editor||Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN, MBA|
|Associate Editor||Pat Truman, MATC|
|Primary Medical Reviewer||Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||Alexander H. Murray, MD, FRCPC - Dermatology|
|Last Updated||October 24, 2008|
Last Updated: October 24, 2008