Molluscum Contagiosum

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is molluscum contagiosum?

Molluscum contagiosum is a skin disease that is caused by a virus and is characterized by flesh-colored, white or pink bumps with a depression in the center. These bumps are often the only sign of molluscum contagiosum. Left untreated, the bumps may persist for months to years but typically resolve on their own with time.

About 10 to 20 bumps appear at a time and the bumps can be as large as five millimeters in diameter. Usually, the bumps are painless but may become red, itchy, sore or swollen. Scratching or picking at the bumps will cause the disease to spread to other parts of the body. Molluscum contagiosum is seen most often in children aged one to 10, but adults can also get the disease.

Multiple clusters of mollusca may occur with active HIV/AIDS. The virus can also be spread through sexual contact, so molluscum contagiosum can be a form of sexually transmitted disease (Source: CDC).

Molluscum contagiosum is spread by either touching an object infected with the virus, such as a towel, clothing or toy, or through direct skin contact with someone who has the virus. Molluscum contagiosum will go away without treatment, but treatment can prevent the disease from spreading further on your body or to other people. If you have a weakened immune system, treatment is highly recommended.

Treatment for molluscum contagiosum may include topical therapy or surgery. New bumps may appear as long as six months after treatment, although treated molluscum contagiosum generally clears within two to four months. It is possible to become reinfected after the bumps have cleared; one infection does not prevent the chance of a future infection.

Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for molluscum contagiosum and its symptoms become more severe or are persistent.

What are the symptoms of molluscum contagiosum?

Molluscum contagiosum is characterized by small bumps, either flesh-colored, pink or white, that have a dimple or pit in the center. Only your health care provider can diagnose molluscum contagiosum. If you experience an unusual skin bump, blister, rash or irritation that does not go away in a few days, see your health care provider.

Common symptoms of molluscum contagiosum

You may experience molluscum contagiosum symptoms daily or just once in a while. At times, any of these molluscum contagiosum symptoms can be severe:

  • Itchy skin
  • Rash
  • Skin bumps that have a depression in the center

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for molluscum contagiosum and its symptoms become more severe or are persistent.

What causes molluscum contagiosum?

Molluscum contagiosum is skin disease caused by a virus. It occurs most often in children. However, adults and adolescents can also experience molluscum contagiosum. This skin disease can recur, particularly if left untreated.

Molluscum contagiosum is spread by either touching an object infected with the virus, such as a towel, clothing or toy, or through direct skin contact with someone who has the virus. Molluscum contagiosum may go away without treatment, but treatment can prevent it from spreading further on your body or to other people. Molluscum contagiosum can be considered to be a sexually-transmitted disease in some cases, because sexual contact may spread the virus.

What are the risk factors for molluscum contagiosum?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing molluscum contagiosum. Not all people with risk factors will get molluscum contagiosum. Risk factors for molluscum contagiosum include:

  • Compromised immune system from any cause
  • Direct skin contact with a contagious virus carrier
  • Touching an object infected with the virus

Reducing your risk of molluscum contagiosum

You may be able to lower your risk of catching molluscum contagiosum by:

  • Avoiding direct skin contact with a contagious virus carrier
  • Not sharing washcloths, clothing, towels, or personal items with others
  • Washing your hands frequently

How is molluscum contagiosum treated?

Treatment for molluscum contagiosum may include surgery. The surgical options include cryosurgery, or the use of liquid nitrogen to freeze the bumps, and curettage, or scraping the bumps off the skin. Laser surgery will burn the bumps off the skin. Nonsurgical topical therapy involves using acids or blistering solutions on the bumps.

New bumps may appear as long as six months after treatment, although most people report they are symptom-free in two to four months.

Medications for molluscum contagiosum

Your health care professional may prescribe different types of medications to treat molluscum contagiosum. Treatments may involve creams applied directly to the skin (topical creams), including antiviral therapies and immune response modifiers, or oral medications. These medications include:

  • Oral medication such as cimetidine (Tagamet)

  • Topicalimmune therapy such as imiquimod (Aldara)

  • Topical retinoid therapy such as tretinoin (Retin A)

  • Topical therapies, such as cantharidin, podophyllin, and salicylic acid

What you can do to improve your molluscum contagiosum

In addition to the course of treatment recommended by your health care professional, you can reduce or limit the spread of molluscum contagiosum by:

  • Avoiding direct skin contact with other people

  • Not scratching or picking at bumps

  • Not sharing washcloths, clothing, towels, or personal items

  • Not shaving skin that has bumps

  • Washing your hands frequently

  • Wearing a watertight bandage over bumps not covered by clothing

What are the potential complications of molluscum contagiosum?

If you have a weakened immune system, you are at increased risk of contracting molluscum contagiosum. The bumps may be larger (up to 15 mm) than are generally associated with molluscum contagiosum.

Potential complications of molluscum contagiosum include:

  • Failure to thrive in immunocompromised infants in children

  • Inability to participate normally in activities

  • Scarring and cosmetic disfigurement

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 19
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Molluscum (molluscum contagiosum). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvrd/molluscum/faq/everyone.htm.
  2. Molluscum contagiosum. American Academy of Dermatology. http://www.aad.org/search/?k=Molluscum+contagiosum.
  3. Berger EM, Orlow SJ, Patel RR, Schaffer JV. Experience with molluscum contagiosum and associated inflammatory reactions in a pediatric dermatology practice: the bump that rashes. Arch Dermatol 2012; 148:1257.
  4. Ferri FF (Ed.) Ferri’s Fast Facts in Dermatology. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier, 2011.