Molluscum contagiosum is a viral skin infection from the poxvirus family that causes pearl-like bumps on the skin. The virus can be transmitted through direct contact (e.g., sharing towels, razors, toys, clothing, bedding, or gym equipment) and through sexual contact, classifying this condition as a sexually transmitted infection (STI). The virus is most commonly found in small children, but teenagers and adults are also at risk of contracting molluscum contagiosum. Molluscum contagiosum is often considered a mild skin rash.
The bumps are 2-5 millimeters in diameter and are painless unless they are irritated. Bumps may be white, pink, or skin-colored. When found on the genitals, the bumps are typically soft and smooth in texture and contain white, waxy pus.2 Molluscum contagiosum is oftentimes confused with herpes, but there is a distinct difference between the two conditions. Molluscum contagiosum lesions are painless, whereas herpes lesions are quite painful. Rather than consisting of individual bumps, molluscum contagiosum typically manifests in clusters. When newly formed, the domes are firm; later, they become soft and gray and may drain fluid.
For children, the bumps are usually found on the face, neck, underarms, and hands. For adults, however, molluscum contagiosum is found on the genitals, abdomen, and inner thighs.2 Lesions may occur anywhere on the body except for the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet.
Molluscum contagiosum can spread through direct contact and/or through sexual behaviors: penile-vaginal sex (coitus), oral sex, and anal sex, as well as through other non-penetrative behaviors such as dry humping or mutual masturbation. A person can spread their own infection around their body if they squeeze the bumps. The virus is commonly spread through sharing/touching an infected person’s towels, bedding, clothing, razors, gym and athletic equipment, toys, and stuffed animals.2 Molluscum contagiosum can only live on non-human surfaces for a few hours.
Individuals who have strong immune systems can expect lesions to last anywhere from two to three months.1 It can take anywhere from three to 18 months for the skin to clear completely. However, people who are immuno-deficient because they have an illness, such as AIDS, may experience much more rapid and severe symptoms because much of the body is combating these other viruses. Most doctors will allow the virus to run its course without surgery due to its generally harmless nature. Some physicians prefer to remove the bumps—especially if the bumps are spreading quickly. Most people infected with the virus want to have the bumps removed immediately. While the bumps may disappear on their own without scarring, many people discover that without treatment, new lesions develop and can spread to other areas of the body or to other people. In such cases, individual lesions may be removed by surgical scraping, application of trichloracetic or bichloracetic acid, freezing, or electrosurgery. Surgical removal of lesions may cause scarring. Alternatively, medications, such as those used to remove warts, may be helpful. Acne medications that contain 5% benzyl peroxide (such as oxy or Clearasil®) may also help remove the nodules. The virus can only live in the bumps and cannot hibernate in a person’s body once the bumps are gone.
There are many ways people can protect themselves from contracting molluscum contagiosum. It is important to avoid direct contact with existing skin lesions, limit the number of sexual partners, and use antifungal soap after sexual contact with a new partner. When sleeping at a new partner’s house, request fresh bedding. Avoid sharing towels and washcloths. Most importantly, use condoms properly and consistently to reduce the risk of contracting any sexually transmitted infections. Since molluscum contagiosum is highly contagious, following these precautions can greatly decrease the likelihood of contracting this virus.
Contact your healthcare provider if lesions persist or spread. Your doctor can determine if the nodules need to be removed. Remember, do not pick at the bumps, as this will only cause them to spread.
- “Molluscum Contagiosum.” Definition. Mayo Clinic Staff, 3 Apr. 2012. Web. 06 May 2014.
- “Molluscum Contagiosum.” Infections: Molluscum Contagiosum. Ed. Patrice Hyde. The Nemours Foundation, 01 Apr. 2013. Web. 06 May 2014.
Last Updated 04 June 2014.