Molluscum contagiosum

Also known as the molluscipox virus

Molluscum contagiosum is a common, mild skin infection caused by a virus. It appears as small raised lumps on the skin, often with a central pit and in clusters.

The lumps range in size from 1–6 mm and may appear shiny and have a white, waxy centre. They can appear anywhere on the body such as arms, legs, trunk, face, thighs, lower abdomen or genital area. They also commonly appear in warm moist places such as the armpit.

Molluscum contagiosum usually affects children, sexually active adults and people with a suppressed immune system. Because of their appearance they can be confused with genital warts or pimples. 

Image credit: DermNet NZ

What are the symptoms?

Molluscum contagiosum is usually painless but can sometimes be itchy, especially if the lumps get infected.

  • The lumps usually appear about 2–3 months after infection and can persist for 6 months to 2 years.
  • Most molluscum infections clear up within 1 year but some people find they get recurrences.
  • Molluscum contagiosum is often associated with surrounding dermatitis (inflammation of the skin), in which case the affected skin becomes pink, dry and itchy.
  • As the lumps resolve, they become inflamed, crusted or scabby for a week or two.

People with a suppressed immune system may have problems with molluscum contagiosum being widespread and may need further treatment.  

How is molluscum contagiosum spread?

Molluscum contagiosum is spread by close skin-to-skin contact. Often the molluscum infection can spread further than the initial cluster through scratching and direct contact with other areas of the skin. It may spread between children swimming and bathing together or be transmitted via clothing or towels. Some people don't develop lumps even when they come into contact with the virus. 

Will sexual partners also have molluscum contagiosum?

Sometimes. It is advisable for sexual partners to see a nurse or doctor for a check-up if they have any unexplained lumps or itches.

How is molluscum contagiosum treated?

Treatment is not usually required as the lumps resolve by themselves. Some people may seek treatment for cosmetic reasons when molluscum appears on the face or eyelids. In these cases, molluscum can be removed by your GP using a clean needle to remove the centre core, or by freezing or burning the lumps. This may leave a scar. Imiquimod (Aldara) cream may also be used.

If you develop secondary dermatitis, it may be treated with a topical steroid cream. However, the dermatitis is unlikely to resolve until the molluscum infection has cleared up.

Are there any complications of molluscum contagiosum?

While molluscum contagiosum is not a serious condition, there are a few potential complications that can occur. If the bumps are scratched or damaged, they can bleed and become infected. This can lead to scarring or changes in skin colour. Sometimes you may be left with spontaneous, pitted scarring, whether or not you have had any treatment. If you develop redness, pain or have any concerns, see your nurse or doctor to check. 

In rare cases, the virus can spread to other parts of the body and cause more serious problems. 

How can I prevent molluscum contagiosum?

Molluscum appears long after you have been infected, and is infectious while the lumps are present. However, affected children and adults should continue to go to work, school and day care. 

To reduce the spread:

  • keep your hands clean
  • avoid scratching and shaving
  • cover all visible lumps with clothing or watertight plasters
  • dispose of used plasters
  • don't share towels, clothing or other personal effects
  • adults should practice safe sex or abstinence.

Learn more

Molluscum contagiosum DermNet NZ
Molluscum factsheet Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne, Australia

References

Molluscum contagiosum Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne, Australia, 2020
Molluscum contagiosum symptoms and causes Mayo Clinic, US, 2022
Molluscum contagiosum Healthline, US, 2022

Information for healthcare providers

Molluscum contagiosum - learning objectives and clinical features  DermNet NZ, 2022

Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr J Bycroft, GP Last reviewed: 19 Sep 2022