What Is It?
Molluscum contagiosum is a skin disease caused by a virus that causes clusters of tiny, firm, flesh-colored or pearly bumps. The infection is mainly spread by direct skin-to-skin contact. The bumps or lesions appear at the site of contact anywhere on the body except the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.
Anyone can get molluscum contagiosum, but the vast majority of those who get it are children. Most people who get this condition are otherwise healthy. However, people with HIV or other immune-suppressing diseases can more easily become infected.
The only symptom of molluscum contagiosum is the tiny bumps on the skin. These flesh-colored or pearly growths look somewhat like tiny pimples with a central crater. A waxy substance may come out of the bumps when they are squeezed. In children, the bumps tend to appear on the face, arms, legs and middle of the body. In adults, molluscum contagiosum tends to appear on the genitals, thighs and lower abdomen because the infection usually is spread through sexual contact. The bumps usually are grouped in 1 or 2 areas, but also can appear in many places on the body. Most people have fewer than 20 bumps, but in rare cases, usually in people with weakened immune systems, several hundred bumps can develop.
The bumps start out small, but can grow up to 3 to 6 millimeters (about a quarter of an inch or less). In rare cases, the bumps can become as large as about an inch, usually only in people with weakened immune systems, such as people with HIV infection.
Many people itch at the site of the lesions, but for some people the bumps cause no symptoms.
Your doctor usually can diagnose molluscum contagiosum by looking at the skin bumps. If there is some question about the diagnosis, the doctor may do a biopsy, removing a small piece of a bump for examination under a microscope.
Individual bumps can last two to four months, but the disease can spread to other areas if the bumps come in contact with an uninfected area of skin, or if you touch a bump then touch an uninfected area. In most people, all lesions go away within six to nine months. However, in some people with weakened immune systems, the disease can last for years.
The only way to prevent molluscum contagiosum is to avoid close contact with people who have the disease.
The infection may heal on its own after several months.
However, you or your child may want treatment to decrease the risk of infecting others and spreading to other parts of the body. The bumps can be removed by freezing them with liquid nitrogen, destroying them with acids or other caustic substances, or surgically scraping them off the skin. In some cases, however, these treatments can cause scarring or skin discoloration.
In people with HIV, it's harder to get rid of the bumps. However, if the immune system is improved by treating the HIV with HAART (highly active antiretroviral therapy), the lesions often go away on their own.
When to Call a Professional
See your doctor if you develop unexplained skin bumps. There are many different causes of skin eruptions, and a health professional can determine if you need treatment.
In people with a normal immune system, molluscum contagiosum typically goes away on its own within one year and rarely lasts longer than five years. The bumps are infectious as long as they are present; however, the condition does not have any long-term effects. Molluscum contagiosum bumps never become cancerous.
American Academy of Dermatology
P.O. Box 4014
Schaumburg, IL 60168-4014