Molluscum Contagiosum: Symptoms and Treatment

These little bumps are caused by a virus, but can easily be treated by a dermatologist.

What is molluscum contagiosum?

Pro Tip

The papules are small (less than a pencil erasure), appear suddenly, and can occur anywhere—except the palms and soles. They are easily spread by skin to skin contact so it is very important not to pick or scratch. But they can also be spread by sharing towels and other personal products. —Dr. Mollie MacCormack

Molluscum contagiosum is a viral infection of the skin, causing small round flesh-colored bumps with a dip or depression in the middle. These bumps can be found on almost any part of your body. They can spread to other parts of the skin through direct contact, and through items that touch your skin like clothes and towels.

Molluscum contagiosum is contagious and children are more likely to get infected. The bumps often go away on their own within 6-12 months without treatment. But if they are causing symptoms, treating them or removing them can get rid of them more quickly.

In adults, severe molluscum contagiosum could be a sign that the immune system is weakened by another condition (such as HIV/AIDS) or by certain medications.

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Most common symptoms of molluscum contagiosum

If you have molluscum contagiosum, your skin will develop round, pink or skin-colored bumps with a small dip in the middle. These bumps tend to be small and itchy. They can be found on any part of the skin, except for the palms and soles. (Sometimes, molluscum contagiosum can be mistaken for warts.)

Molluscum is most often seen in children, occuring on exposed skin surfaces. In adults, molluscum can be transmitted during sexual activity, appearing in the genital area.

In adults with a weakened immune system, the bumps may be bigger or occur on the face. There may be more of them across your whole body.

Main symptoms

  • Round, pink or skin-colored bumps with central dip that may or may not be itchy
  • Bumps are found on neck, limbs, or torso of children
  • In adults molluscum lesions may appear in the genital area due to transmission during sexual activity
  • Large molluscum, or numerous lesions occurring on the face of adults may indicate a weakened immune system
  • New bumps may appear over the course of 2 to 7 weeks from initial infection if it spread to new areas

Risk factors

  • Young children are most likely to get it
  • Pre-existing skin conditions that weaken the skin barrier, such as atopic dermatitis (eczema)
  • Weakened immune system
  • Participating in activities with increased skin-on-skin contact (for example, contact sports, sexual contact)

Pro Tip

Let your doctor know if you have very large lesions, lesions on the face, or lesions that fail to respond to treatment. This could be a sign of a compromised immune system, possibly due to HIV. —Dr. MacCormack

What is molluscum caused by?

These bumps are caused by the molluscum contagiosum virus (also called the poxvirus). The virus spreads through contact with an infected person or a contaminated object. The incubation period (time between contact with the virus and bumps arising) is about 2 to 7 weeks.

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Treatments to remove molluscum

Left untreated, most molluscum lesions resolve spontaneously. This is often the best treatment option for young children. If the bumps are causing symptoms or are an issue cosmetically, they can be removed. There are several methods to remove them. After treatment, petroleum jelly or non-medicated ointment can be applied to help heal the treated bumps and reduce scarring.

  • Freezing with liquid nitrogen (cryotherapy). Your doctor applies liquid nitrogen to bumps, which freezes and destroys them. The treated sites will crust and heal over the next few days.
  • Topical Cantharidin. Cantharidin is a medication derived from the blister beetle. Your doctor applies this medication to the bumps and it is washed off a few hours later. The medication causes the treated bumps to blister and typically clear over the next few days.
  • Minor surgical removal. A sharp sterile tool is used to remove the central core of the lesion or scrape them off entirely. Your doctor may apply numbing medication beforehand. The procedure may cause bleeding and discomfort.
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How does molluscum contagiosum go away?

Molluscum contagiosum most often goes away on its own. In children, bumps can go away within months. However, new bumps can appear as older ones go away. Children can spread the disease by picking at lesions and then touching other parts of their bodies. Most children will outgrow this condition within 6-12 months, though in some, it may take longer.

For adults with severe molluscum or with multiple facial bumps, it is important to check for a weakened immune system. Certain medications and illnesses (such as HIV/AIDS) may weaken the immune system. If you have HIV/AIDS, medications that strengthen the immune system will help the bumps go away.

Next steps

Dr. Rx

Ask your doctor should I be checked for other sexually transmitted diseases? Sexually active adolescents and adults with molluscum contagiosum in the genital area should generally be evaluated for other sexually transmitted diseases. —Dr. MacCormack

Make an appointment to see your doctor. They may refer you to a dermatologist (skin doctor), who can confirm if it is molluscum contagiosum or another skin condition and plan for treatment.

If the bumps are removed by a doctor, you will probably have a follow-up visit a few months later. This is done to check for new bumps.  Eventually, no new bumps will form, as children gain immunity against the virus.

Preventative tips

There are ways to stop the spread of molluscum contagiosum.

  • Don’t scratch bumps that look like molluscum contagiosum.
  • Don’t try to pop these bumps.
  • Cover the bumps with bandages or clothing. Your child can continue participating in contact sports, school, or day care as long as bumps are covered. Check with the organizers of these activities for further guidance.
  • Wash your hands if you touch any bumps.
  • In families with multiple children, don’t share towels or bathe children together.
  • In adults, limit direct skin contact if lesions are present (including sex, especially if there are bumps in the groin).
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