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Skin conditions: Molluscum contagiosum

Molluscum contagiosum, or MC, is a skin infection caused by a virus and causes small raised, pearl-like papules or bumps to appear on the skin.

Picture of Molluscum Contagiosum
Image: Color Atlas & Synopsis of Pediatric Dermatology

Molluscum contagiosum is very contagious and spreads very easily through contact with skin or things a person with the infection has used, such as towels and flannels.

Molluscum contagiosum usually affects children and younger adults, but people of any age can develop the condition.

The papules should never be squeezed as this will be painful, risk spreading the infection and could cause scarring.

Molluscum contagiosum usually gets better on its own after around a year to 18 months.

What causes molluscum contagiosum?

Molluscum contagiosum is caused by a virus (molluscum contagiosum virus) that is part of the pox virus family. The virus is contagious through direct contact and is more common in children. However, the virus can also be spread by sexual contact and can occur in people with compromised immune systems. Molluscum contagiosum can spread on a single individual through scratching and rubbing.

What are the symptoms of molluscum contagiosum?

Common locations for the papules are on the face, torso and limbs of children and on the genitals, abdomens, and inner thighs of adults. The condition usually results in papules that:

  • Are generally painless, but can itch
  • Are small (2 to 5 millimeter diameter)
  • Have a dimple in the centre
  • Are initially firm, dome-shaped and flesh-coloured
  • Become softer with time
  • Have a central core of white, waxy material

Molluscum contagiosum usually disappears spontaneously over a period of months to years in people who have normal immune systems. With people who have AIDS or other conditions that affect the immune system, the lesions associated with molluscum contagiosum can be extensive.

How is molluscum contagiosum diagnosed?

Diagnosis of molluscum contagiosum is based on the distinctive appearance of the lesion. If the diagnosis is in question, a doctor can confirm the diagnosis with a skin biopsy (the removal of a portion of skin for diagnostic examination). If there is any concern about related health problems, a doctor can check for underlying disorders.

How is molluscum contagiosum treated?

The condition is usually self-limiting, so treatment is not always necessary. However, individual lesions may be removed by scraping or freezing. Topical medications, such as those used to remove warts, may also be helpful in lesion removal.

The surgical removal of individual lesions may result in scarring.

How can molluscum contagiosum be prevented?

To prevent molluscum contagiosum, follow these tips:

  • Avoid direct contact with anyone who has skin lesions.
  • Treat underlying eczema in children.
  • Remain sexually abstinent or have a monogamous sexual relationship with an uninfected individual. (Male and female condoms cannot offer full protection as the virus can be found on areas not covered by the condom.)
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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on February 25, 2014

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