What is molluscum contagiosum?

Molluscum contagiosum, commonly called molluscum, is a viral infection resulting in benign, painless skin lesions on the body.

Although molluscum contagiousum can develop on any area of the skin, it typically presents on the legs, arms, abdomen, genital area, neck or face. The lesions will appear approximately seven weeks after being infected and typically go away within a year without scarring.

Molluscum is transferred via person-to-person contact or contact with an item where the virus lives. The virus lives on the top level of skin and does not circulate through the blood or bodily secretions. Therefore, if the lesions have cleared, the condition is gone and cannot be passed to others.

Causes of molluscum contagiosum

Molluscum contagiosum is caused by a poxvirus that can spread through:

  • Direct person-to-person contact — molluscum contagiosum can spread to other body parts though touching a lesion and then touching another body part through a process called autoinoculation.
  • Sexual contact — most cases of molluscum in adults are caused by sexual contact with another person who has the virus.
  • Contact with a surface that where the virus lives — the virus can live in inanimate objects such as linens, clothes, towels, pool equipment and toys.

Risk factors for molluscum contagiosum

The most common risk factor for molluscum contagiosum is age, as the viral infection is most common in children ages 1-10.

Other risk factors for developing molluscum contagiosum include:

  • Anyone with a weakened immune system, such as patients being treated for cancer or HIV
  • People who live in warmer climates with dense living conditions
  • People with atopic dermatitis

Symptoms of molluscum contagiosum

Symptoms of molluscum contagiosum include:

  • Tiny, round bumps that are firm but smooth
  • Small dimple in the center of each lesion
  • Painless, but sometimes itchy
  • Occasionally red and inflamed

Diagnosis of molluscum contagiosum

Molluscum contagiosum is diagnosed by your primary care provider, typically just by looking at the characteristic rash.

Occasionally, a scraping of the lesion will be sent to a laboratory to confirm the presence of the molluscum contagiosum virus.

Treatments for molluscum contagiosum

Since molluscum contagiosum is a viral infection, antibiotics aren’t effective. The lesions caused by molluscum contagiosum usually fade on their own without treatment.

In some cases, your doctor may recommend the following treatments:

Physical removal

Molluscum can be removed using a variety of surgical techniques such as cryotherapy, curettage or laser therapy.

  • Cryotherapy — using liquid nitrogen to freeze the lesion
  • Curettage — scraping the contents of the lesion
  • Laser therapy — using a focused laser beam to destroy the lesion

Oral therapy

Children with severe molluscum may be candidates for oral therapy, which gradually removes the lesions. Although oral therapy is less painful and well tolerated, the medication does not remove lesions on the face as well as other areas of the body.

Topical therapy

There are a variety of prescription topical therapies used to treat molluscum. Your doctor will evaluate your condition and prescribe one that is most appropriate for your condition.

Molluscum should not be treated or removed without the assistance of a trained medical provider. Attempting to remove them could cause a larger break out.

Recovery from molluscum contagiosum

The rash from molluscum contagiosum typically fades within 6-12 months. Scratching the lesions will cause them to open or fall off, exposing the virus and spreading it to others or onto parts of your body.

As long as you have lesions, you’re still able to spread the molluscum contagiosum virus. You should avoid sharing clothes, towels and bedding with others and regularly wash these materials while you’re infected.

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