Molluscum contagiosum is a very common viral infection of the skin that looks like small flesh-colored or pinkish, raised bumps. Sometimes the center of the bump has a dimple, and sometimes the bump leaks a white substance. The bumps tend to be painless and harmless; they are, however, contagious and can be spread to others and spread across the affected person's own body by touching or scratching. In order to avoid spreading the infection, it is important not to pick at or scratch the bumps. It can be helpful to keep them covered; also avoid sharing intimate objects such as sheets, towels, and clothes.
Molluscum contagiosum do not need to be removed unless they are bothersome. A doctor can remove them one by one in the office. If left alone, they will go away on their own within months to a few years.
Who's At Risk
Anyone of any age can develop molluscum contagiosum. Children tend to get lesions on their face, arms, and hands from normal childhood play while teens and adults tend to get them in genital regions from sexual contact. Anyone with an immunosuppressive disorder, such as HIV, may have much more trouble with molluscum contagiosum and may develop many, many lesions.
Signs and Symptoms
In adults, the genitals, stomach, buttocks, and inner thigh areas are more often affected as intimate contact with another is the usual source of infection. Men are more often affected than women. Adults with weak immune systems (such as those with HIV) may have severe, extensive infection.
One or more small (1–5 mm); pink, white, or skin-colored; smooth, dome-shaped bumps, often with a tiny dot or depression in the center, occur in clusters and sometimes in a straight line from scratching and spreading via self-inoculation. In people with a weak immune system, bumps can be larger than a nickel.
- Mild – under 10 spots
- Moderate – 10-50 spots
- Severe – over 50 spots
Treatment in mild infections is often not required, as the infection will go away on its own. In this case, care should be taken not to scratch or shave the areas. Keep the area covered to avoid transmission of the virus and avoid sharing clothing, towels, and beds with others. Over-the-counter medications used to treat warts (with salicylic acid) may be helpful in removing the bumps, although these treatments can also be irritating.
When to Seek Medical Care
When there is a moderate or severe infection and there is a concern of spread or concern about appearance, seek medical care.
Treatments Your Physician May Prescribe
- Removal with freezing (cryosurgery), scraping (curettage), burning (electrocautery), or a laser
- Application of chemicals (a strong acid or alkali) or Cantharone (an extract from a blister beetle)
- Prescription of a cream with either tretinoin (derived from vitamin A) or imiquimod (a prescription product also used to treat warts, another type of viral infection)
Bolognia, Jean L., ed. Dermatology
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Freedberg, Irwin M., ed. Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in General Medicine
ed. pp.1861, 2114-2116, 2332. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.