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Molluscum contagiosum

Molluscum contagiosum (mo-LUS-kum kun-tay-jee-OH-sum) is a relatively common viral infection of the skin that results in round, firm, painless bumps ranging in size from a pinhead to a pencil eraser. If the bumps are scratched or injured, the infection can spread to surrounding skin.

Though most common in children, molluscum contagiosum can affect adults as well — particularly those with weakened immune systems. In adults, molluscum contagiosum involving the genitals is considered a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

Molluscum contagiosum spreads through direct person-to-person contact and through contact with contaminated objects. The bumps associated with molluscum contagiosum usually disappear within a year without treatment but doctor-assisted removal is also an option.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications Prevention

Molluscum contagiosum results in raised, round, flesh-colored bumps on the skin. The bumps:

  • Are small — typically under about a quarter inch (approximately 2 to 5 millimeters) in diameter
  • Characteristically have a small indentation or dot at the top
  • Can become red and inflamed
  • Can be easily removed by scratching or rubbing, which can spread the virus to adjacent skin

In children, the bumps typically appear on the face, neck, armpits, hands and arms. In adults, molluscum contagiosum may be a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and is usually seen on the genitals, lower abdomen, inner upper thighs and buttocks.

When to see a doctor

If you suspect you or your child has molluscum contagiosum, consult your family doctor or a dermatologist.

The virus that causes molluscum contagiosis spreads easily through:

  • Direct skin-to-skin contact
  • Contact with contaminated objects, such as toys, towels and faucet handles
  • Sexual contact with an affected partner

Scratching or rubbing the bumps spreads the virus to nearby skin.

More widespread molluscum contagiosis infections may occur in people with weakened immune systems and in children who have atopic dermatitis.

The bumps and the skin around them may become red and inflamed. This is thought to be an immune response to the infection. If scratched, these bumps can become infected. If lesions appear on the eyelids, pinkeye (conjunctivitis) can develop.

To help prevent the spread of the virus:

  • Wash your hands. Keeping your hands clean can help prevent spreading the virus.
  • Avoid touching the bumps. Shaving over the infected areas also can spread the virus.
  • Don't share personal items. This includes clothing, towels, hairbrushes or other personal items. Refrain from borrowing these items from others as well.
  • Avoid sexual contact. If you have molluscum contagiosum on or near your genitals, don't have sex until the bumps are treated and have completely resolved.
  • Cover the bumps. Use a bandage to cover your bumps if there's a possibility that another person may come in contact with infected skin.

Swimming pool precautions

It's not clear if the molluscum contagiosum virus can spread in the chlorinated water found in swimming pools. Experts suspect that it's more likely that swimmers transmit the virus through shared use of towels; equipment, such as kickboards; or direct skin contact. To help prevent the spread of molluscum contagiosum, cover the bumps with watertight bandages before swimming and don't share towels, water toys or kickboards.

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