Molluscum contagiosum is a benign skin infection caused by the virus Molluscum contagiosum. It causes raised bumps, or lesions, to appear on the upper layers of the skin.
The small bumps caused by the infection are usually painless, and they resolve on their own and rarely leave scars when they’re left untreated. The length of time the virus lasts varies for each person, but the bumps can remain from two months to four years.
Molluscum contagiosum can be passed on by direct contact with someone who has it or by touching an object contaminated with the virus, such as a towel or a piece of clothing.
Symptoms of Molluscum Contagiosum
Symptoms may not be immediately obvious if you or your child comes into contact with the M. contagiosum virus. In some cases, it can take up to six months for symptoms to appear. The average incubation period is between two and seven weeks.
You may notice the appearance of a small group of painless lesions. These bumps can appear alone or in a patch of as many as 20. The bumps are usually:
- very small, shiny, and smooth in appearance
- flesh-colored, white, or pink
- firm and shaped like a dome with a dent or dimple in the middle
- filled with a central core of waxy material
- between 2 to 5 millimeters in diameter, or between the size of the head of a pin and the size of an eraser on the top of a pencil
- present anywhere except on the palms of your hands or the soles of your feet — specifically on the face, abdomen, torso, arms, and legs of children, or the inner thigh, genitals, and abdomen of adults
For those with weakened immune system, symptoms may be more obvious. Lesions may be as large as 15 millimeters in diameter, which is about the size of a dime. The bumps appear more often on the face and are usually resistant to treatment.
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Causes of Molluscum Contagiosum
You can get molluscum contagiosum by touching the lesions on the skin of an infected person. Children can transmit the virus while playing with infection children.
Also, teens and adults are more likely to contract it through sexual contact. You can also become infected during contact sports that involve touching bare skin, such as wrestling or football.
The virus can survive on surfaces that have been touched by the skin of a person with molluscum contagiosum. So it’s possible to contract the virus by touching clothing, towels, toys, or other items that have been contaminated.
You may likely spread the infection throughout your body by transfering the virus from one part of your body to another through scratching, touching, or shaving a bump and then touching another part of your body.
Risk factors for molluscum contagiosum?
Anyone can get molluscum contagiosum, but certain groups of people are more likely to become infected:
- people with weakened immune systems
- children between the ages of 1 and 10
- people who live in tropical climates
- people who have atopic dermatitis
- people who participate in contact sports, such as wrestling or football, in which bare skin-to-skin contact is common
How is molluscum contagiosum diagnosed?
The skin bumps caused by molluscum contagiosum have a distinctive appearance, so your doctor can diagnose the infection by merely looking at the affected area. A skin scraping or biopsy can confirm the diagnosis.
It’s usually unnecessary to treat molluscum contagiosum, but you should always have your doctor examine any skin lesions that last longer than a few days. A confirmed diagnosis of molluscum contagiosum will rule out other causes for the lesions, such as warts, skin cancer, or chickenpox.
Treating molluscum contagiosum
It may not be necessary to treat the lesions caused by molluscum contagiosum if you have a healthy immune system. The bumps will disappear on their own without medical treatment.
However, some circumstances may justify treatment. You may be a candidate for treatment if:
- your lesions are large and located on your face and neck
- you have an existing skin disease such as atopic dermatitis
- you have serious concerns about spreading the virus
The most effective treatments for molluscum contagiosum are performed by a doctor. These include laser therapy, cryotherapy, curettage, and topical therapy. These techniques in some cases can be painful and cause scarring. Anesthesia may also be necessary.
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New bumps may appear as the existing ones are treated, so a procedure may require more than one session. If you have many large bumps, additional treatment may be necessary every three to six weeks until the bumps disappear. Your doctor may prescribe the following medications:
- trichloroacetic acid
- topical podophyllotoxin cream (Condylox)
- cantharidin (Cantharone), which is obtained from the blister beetle and applied by your doctor
- imiquimod (Aldara)
If you’re pregnant, planning to become pregnant, or breastfeeding, let your doctor know about your condition before taking these medications or any others.
How can molluscum contagiosum be prevented?
The best way to prevent getting molluscum contagiosum is to avoid touching the skin of another person who has the infection. Also you may:
- Practice washing your hands effectively with warm water and soap.
- Instruct children to wash hands regularly.
- Avoid sexual contact if you have bumps in the genital area.
- Avoid sharing personal items like clothing, bar soaps, towels, clothing, and hairbrushes.
- Avoid using shared sports gear that may have come in direct contact with someone else’s bare skin.
- Avoid picking at or touching areas of your skin where the bumps exist.
- Keep the bumps clean and covered to prevent yourself or others from spreading the virus.
- Avoid shaving or using electrolysis where the bumps are located.