Molluscum contagiosum is an infection caused by a poxvirus (molluscum contagiosum virus). The result of the infection is usually a benign, mild skin disease characterized by lesions (growths) that may appear anywhere on the body. Within 6-12 months, Molluscum contagiosum typically resolves without scarring but may take as long as 4 years.
The lesions, known as Mollusca, are small, raised, and usually white, pink, or flesh-colored with a dimple or pit in the center. They often have a pearly appearance. They’re usually smooth and firm. In most people, the lesions range from about the size of a pinhead to as large as a pencil eraser (2 to 5 millimeters in diameter). They may become itchy, sore, red, and/or swollen.
Mollusca may occur anywhere on the body including the face, neck, arms, legs, abdomen, and genital area, alone or in groups. The lesions are rarely found on the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet.
The virus that causes molluscum spreads from direct person-to-person physical contact and through contaminated fomites. Fomites are inanimate objects that can become contaminated with virus; in the instance of molluscum contagiosum this can include linens such as clothing and towels, bathing sponges, pool equipment, and toys. Although the virus might be spread by sharing swimming pools, baths, saunas, or other wet and warm environments, this has not been proven. Researchers who have investigated this idea think it is more likely the virus is spread by sharing towels and other items around a pool or sauna than through water.
Someone with molluscum can spread it to other parts of their body by touching or scratching a lesion and then touching their body somewhere else. This is called autoinoculation. Shaving and electrolysis can also spread mollusca to other parts of the body.
Molluscum can spread from one person to another by sexual contact. Many, but not all, cases of molluscum in adults are caused by sexual contact.
The molluscum contagiosum virus remains in the top layer of skin (epidermis) and does not circulate throughout the body; therefore, it cannot spread through coughing or sneezing.
Since the virus lives only in the top layer of skin, once the lesions are gone the virus is gone and you cannot spread it to others.
Who is at risk for infection?Molluscum contagiosum is common enough that you should not be surprised if you see someone with it or if someone in your family becomes infected. Although not limited to children, it is most common in children 1 to 10 years of age.
People at increased risk for getting the disease include:
- People with weakened immune systems (i.e., HIV-infected persons or persons being treated for cancer) are at higher risk for getting molluscum contagiosum. Their growths may look different, be larger, and be more difficult to treat.
- Atopic dermatitis may also be a risk factor for getting molluscum contagiosum due to frequent breaks in the skin. People with this condition also may be more likely to spread molluscum contagiousm to other parts of their body for the same reason.
- People who live in warm, humid climates where living conditions are crowded.
What are the treatment options?Because molluscum contagiosum is self-limited in healthy individuals, treatment may be unnecessary. Nonetheless, issues such as lesion visibility, underlying atopic disease, and the desire to prevent transmission may prompt therapy.
Physical removal of lesions may include cryotherapy (freezing the lesion with liquid nitrogen) and curettage (the piercing of the core and scraping of caseous or cheesy material). These options are rapid and require a trained health care provider, may require local anesthesia.
It is not a good idea to try and remove lesions or the fluid inside of lesions yourself. By removing lesions or lesion fluid by yourself you may unintentionally autoinoculate other parts of the body or risk spreading it to others. By scratching or scraping the skin you could cause a bacterial infection
Potassium hydroxide fluid is reliable as a home therapy. This type of fluid causes dissolution of the cells infected with the virus, and this produces a defense reaction of the skin in the area that is affected by the molluscum contagiosum. It should not be used on sensitive areas (e.g. close to the eyes), on mucous (e.g. mouth or genitals), on damaged skin, on already inflammed molluscum contagiosum , and in children under 2 years.
How can I keep it from spreading?The best way to avoid getting molluscum is by following good hygiene habits.
Wash your hands!
Keeping your hands clean is the best way to avoid molluscum infection, as well as many other infections. Hand washing removes germs that may have been picked up from other people or from surfaces that have germs on them.
Don't scratch or pick at molluscum lesions!
Picking and scratching can spread the virus to other parts of the body and makes it easier to spread the disease to other people too.
Keep molluscum lesions covered!
It is important to keep the area with molluscum lesions clean and covered with clothing or a bandage so that others do not touch the lesions and become infected. Do remember to keep the affected skin clean and dry.
Any time there is no risk of others coming into contact with your skin, such as at night when you sleep, uncover the lesions to help keep your skin healthy.
Be careful during sports activities!
Do not share towels, clothing, or other personal items.
Swimming should also be avoided unless all lesions can be covered by watertight bandages. Personal items such as towels, goggles, and swim suits should not be shared.
Do not shave or have electrolysis on areas with lesions.