Molluscum Contagiosum Is a Viral Skin Infection

No cure exists for this common skin condition.

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The poxvirus comes in many forms. Some forms of the poxvirus affect the entire body and can be very serious like smallpox or monkeypox. Other types of poxvirus, like molluscum contagiosum, affect only the skin.

Molluscum contagiosum is a mild disease of the skin that results in either solitary bumps or groups or patches of bumps. These bumps are raised with a central dimple; they are either white, pink or flesh-colored.

These bumps range in width and can be as small as the head of a pin or as large as a pencil eraser. They are also firm and can become sore, itchy, red and inflamed.

Molluscum contagiosum can be found on all parts of the body except the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet. Molluscum contagiosum typically spots the neck, legs, arms, face, abdomen and genital areas. 

Molluscum contagiosum usually affects children aged 10 years and younger; however, it can also affect adults. This virus is spread by skin to skin contact and is common in warm and humid environments like around the pool, hot tub or sauna. 

In recent years, molluscum contagiosum has been classified as one of three forms. First, there's the molluscum contagiosum presentation that usually infects children and affects the trunk, face, arms, and legs. Second, there's the form of molluscum contagiosum that is sexually transmitted and affects the private parts.

Third, a more severe form of molluscum contagiosum can infect people who are immunocompromised (think AIDS).

Molluscum contagiosum is thought to be transmitted by means of fomites like clothing and towels. This virus can also be transmitted by skin to skin contact that occurs during sex. People are often infected in warm and wet environments like around a pool or sauna.

It's unclear whether molluscum contagiosum can be transmitted by either swimming in a pool or sitting in a sauna or contact with actual pool or sauna equipment like a bench. It's also unclear whether contact with intact (unbroken) lesions or bumps can infect a person. Instead, many experts believe that these bumps must be broken to release the virus which lives in the top layer of the skin.

Often, people with molluscum contagiosum break a bump by scratching it open thus getting the virus on their fingertips. These people then touch and infect other parts of their bodies—a process called autoinnoculation.  

Children with allergies (atopic dermatitis) are at increased risk for infection with mollscum contagiosum. Additionally, people who are immunocompromised (think HIV/AIDS or long-standing steroid therapy) are at higher risk for molluscum contagiosum. Some people who are immunocompromised get particularly large lesions (greater than 1.5 cm in diameter) or lesions that won't go away and are hard to treat.

After exposure to the virus, it takes about 2 to 7 weeks for bumps to form. These bumps typically last a few months but can last as long as 4 years.

Unfortunately, there's no real cure or great treatment for the unsightly and uncomfortable bumps caused by this infection. Some dermatologists, however, do advocate removing the core of the bumps caused by molluscum contagiosum. In people who are severely immunocompromised and have bumps that don't go away, a topical antiviral cream called cidofovir may help.

Please take heart that most of the time molluscum contagiosum goes away on its own without scarring. Fortunately, unlike other viruses like herpes, molluscum contagiosum doesn't remain in your body after infection resolves. Nevertheless, people with molluscum contagiosum can become infected with the virus again.

A good way to prevent infection with molluscum contagiosum is to avoid sharing towels or clothing with others especially around the pool, jacuzzi or so forth. Furthermore, if you do get bumps caused by molluscum contagiosum, try not to scratch them and spread the infection to other parts of your body. Additionally, by scratching these bumps you can leave scars.


Wang F. Molluscum Contagiosum, Monkeypox, and Other Poxvirus Infections. In: Kasper D, Fauci A, Hauser S, Longo D, Jameson J, Loscalzo J. eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2015.

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