What Is Molluscum Contagiosum?

A Poorly Understood STI

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Molluscum contagiosum is a contagious skin infection caused by a type of poxvirus. It results in round, flesh-colored, painless, and sometimes itchy bumps that can appear anywhere on the skin.

It most often affects young children, as well as adults who have weakened immune systems. It is transmitted by direct skin contact. Because it can spread during sexual contact, it is considered a sexually transmitted infection (STI) in adults.

Poxvirus refers to a family of viruses that tend to cause skin lesions or bumps, fever, swollen lymph nodes, and body aches.

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This article explains what molluscum contagiosum is, what causes it, and the symptoms associated with it. It also discusses how it is diagnosed and treatment options.

Types of Molluscum Contagiosum

There are four subtypes of the virus that can trigger molluscum contagiosum. All four types cause the same lesions, or bumps. Type one is the most common, while types two, three, and four tend to impact those with weakened immune systems.

Molluscum Contagiosum Symptoms

The molluscum contagiosum virus causes raised, fluid-filled bumps on the skin. These bumps range from the size of a pinhead to the size of a pencil eraser.

They usually have a small dimple or pit in the middle. Individuals with compromised immune systems, such as those living with HIV/AIDS, may get larger bumps that grow to the size of a dime. While typically painless, the bumps can be itchy, irritated, swollen, or sore.

Causes

This infection is caused by a virus of the poxvirus family called the molluscum contagiosum virus (MCV). Once infected, bumps can show up within weeks and can last for six to 18 months before completely clearing up. However, in some cases, lesions can persist for five years.

How It Spreads

Molluscum contagiosum spreads through close or skin-to-skin contact. This may include shared towels, athletic equipment, clothes, toys, and other shared objects.

If possible, children should avoid sharing objects and linens with others, and should not take baths with other children to prevent further spread.

In adults, the infection can be sexually transmitted and can appear in the genital and anal area, as well as the mouth. It's best to refrain from sexual activity and see your healthcare provider right away if you notice these symptoms.

Diagnosis

Any and all new bumps on the skin should be looked at by a healthcare provider. This is particularly true if they appear in the genital area. Your provider can diagnose a molluscum infection based on a physical examination. Sometimes a biopsy, or removing a tiny sample of scraped skin, is necessary.

Molluscum contagiosum is not detected through urine or blood tests.

Treatment

Molluscum contagiosum should only be treated by a healthcare professional. Treatments advocated on the Internet may actually cause more harm than good.

At your healthcare provider's office, the bumps:

  • Can be frozen off
  • May be removed with lasers
  • May be drained using special techniques
  • May be treated with topical creams that contain retinoids, which come from vitamin A, or salicylic acid, which helps with exfoliating the skin
  • May be treated with drugs taken by mouth

In most cases, the molluscum bumps will heal in six to 12 months if left untreated.

Once the molluscum bumps are gone, the infection is considered to be cured. Molluscum contagiosum does not have a dormant, or inactive, phase like herpes or human papillomavirus (HPV).

Prognosis

While considered a mild condition, it can take a while for the virus to fully clear up. Scarring usually does not occur. However, scarring is possible if you scratch the bumps off or have them medically removed.

Molluscum contagiosum infections are generally easy to manage in individuals with healthy immune systems. They can be much more problematic in people with uncontrolled HIV, or with weakened immune systems. In rare cases, infections that spread can lead to permanent skin changes.

Coping

To manage this condition:

  • Keep the bumps clean and wash your hands often.
  • Moisturize the skin, especially if it feels dry and itchy.
  • Try not to scratch or squeeze the bumps, as this can further spread the infection to other parts of your body.
  • Don't shave the bumps, as this can spread the infection to other areas of your body.
  • Wash clothing and towels immediately after use and don't share anything that someone else may touch to their skin.
  • Don't bathe children together if one child has this infection.
  • Cover the bumps with waterproof bandages when with others, and remove the bandages once home.

Keep in mind that the molluscum contagiosum virus doesn't stick around after you heal. However, if you come into contact with someone with this condition, it is possible to get reinfected.

Among adults, the most common way that this condition is transmitted is through sexual contact. It's best to avoid sexual contact with an individual with this condition until the virus has cleared, or at least practice safer sexual contact.

In children, it can be difficult to prevent this infection from spreading. However, there are steps you can take to reduce the chance of the infection spreading on the individual and to others.

Summary

Molluscum contagiosum is a contagious viral infection that can lead to fluid-filled skin lesions in children and adults. These round, usually-painless bumps may sometimes be itchy, swollen, or sore. It spreads from skin-to-skin contact and close contact.

Your healthcare provider can diagnose this condition with a physical examination and a biopsy, if needed. Treatment will vary depending on the specific individual. In most cases, the infection can fully clear up untreated within six to 12 months.

A Word From Verywell

While it may feel stressful to find out that you or a loved one has this infection, there are steps you can take to reduce its spread further on your own body and to others. Remember that this virus typically clears on its own without treatment and often doesn't cause any scarring.

Be sure to reach out to your healthcare provider as soon as possible if you notice any new bumps on your body.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is molluscum an HSV?

    No. It is caused by a poxvirus, not a herpes simplex virus.

  • Is molluscum contagiosum considered an STI?

    Yes. Because it can spread through sexual contact, it is considered an STI in adults.

  • What is the fastest way to get rid of molluscum contagiosum?

    Keeping the bumps clean, avoiding squeezing and scratching them, and washing your hands can help prevent the virus from further spreading on your body. Healthcare providers can also remove them with freezing, lasers, and other treatments.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Molluscum contagiosum.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Poxvirus.

  3. ScienceDirect. Molluscum contagiosum virus.

  4. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Molluscum contagiosum: signs and symptoms.

  5. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Molluscum contagiosum: tips for managing.

  6. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Molluscum contagiosum: who gets and causes.

  7. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Molluscum contagiosum: diagnosis and treatment.

  8. Azevedo T, Catarino A, Ferreira L, Borges F, Mansinho K. Disseminated molluscum contagiosum lesions in an HIV patient. Cleve Clin J Med. 2017;84(3):186-187. doi:10.3949/ccjm.84a.16070

By Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Elizabeth Boskey, PhD, MPH, CHES, is a social worker, adjunct lecturer, and expert writer in the field of sexually transmitted diseases.