Molluscum Contagiosum

What is molluscum contagiosum?

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Molluscum contagiosum is a viral infection that causes a skin rash. This condition is a result of a poxvirus, which is a type of virus that causes lesions, nodules, and rashes to form. Known simply as MC, molluscum contagiosum manifests as several firm, small, and raised papules on the skin. These spots are not often painful, but they can itch. The rash often resolves without treatment and does not typically leave scars.

That said, if you suspect you have molluscum contagiosum, it is important to see a doctor. Getting a diagnosis can rule out other potential conditions, some of which may be more serious. Additionally, people with compromised immune systems are at a greater risk for complications when experiencing an MC infection. To receive a diagnosis, speed treatment, and limit viral spread, schedule an appointment with your primary care physician or dermatologist.

What causes molluscum contagiosum?

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Molluscum contagiosum is caused by a type of poxvirus known as M. contagiosum. This virus is contagious. People who develop molluscum contagiosum nodules have usually been in contact with another person who has similar lesions. People with lesions can also infect a different area of their own body. For example, somebody with lesions on their forearm can spread the virus to a different limb. This is known as auto-inoculation.

There are several ways in which somebody might become infected with this poxvirus. The most common include:

  • Skin-to-Skin Contact: It is possible to become infected with contagiosum when touching lesions on the skin of another person who has the virus. This transmission can occur through sexual activity, but it is also common in contact sports and other non-sexual contexts. For example, children playing together are known to spread this virus.
  • Equipment Sharing: Sharing sports equipment with an infected person can cause viral transmission. This can include items like football helmets, baseball and softball gloves, boxing gloves, wrestling mats, and more.
  • Surface Sharing: In some cases, a person may contract the virus after touching a surface that a person with molluscum contagiosum has touched. This virus can survive on most surfaces, including clothing toys, towels, and bedding.

Like many viruses, M. contagiosum thrives in warm, wet conditions. This means that settings like swimming lessons, gyms, and other fitness facilities are areas of higher transmission risk.

What are the symptoms of molluscum contagiosum?

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Molluscum contagiosum appears as a group of lesions. These bumps can appear in patches or alone. The nodules themselves are often flesh-colored, shiny, smooth, and small. They are firm and conical and sometimes have a small dimple or dent in the middle. They have a waxy core and can measure between 2 and 5 millimeters in diameter.

Molluscum contagiosum can appear in most places on the body. However, it cannot form on the soles of the feet or the palms of the hand. Most often, nodules appear on the torso, arms, abdomen, face, and inner thighs.

It can take several weeks or months for molluscum contagiosum to appear after M. contagiosum infection. If somebody comes into contact with the virus, they may not see symptoms for up to 6 months. If possible infection has occurred, conduct routine skin checks to look for lesions. Additionally, if you have a diagnosed infection, contact tracing can help reduce the likelihood of further spread.

Are there risk factors for molluscum contagiosum?

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Any person, regardless of age, sex, and ethnicity, can get molluscum contagiosum. However, some groups are more likely to become infected than others. These groups include:

  • Children between ages 1 and 10, especially if they often participate in social settings
  • Immunocompromised people, like those who have received cancer treatments, organ transplants, or who have an autoimmune condition like HIV
  • People who live in warm, wet climates
  • Those who frequently participate in sports with a lot of skin-to-skin contact, like wrestling
  • People with atopic dermatitis or eczema

Keep in mind that there is no vaccine available for molluscum contagiosum. The best preventative methods include handwashing, avoiding sharing certain personal items, and preventing touching or picking at potentially infected areas.

How is molluscum contagiosum diagnosed?

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If you suspect that you have molluscum contagiosum, schedule an appointment with your primary care physician or dermatologist. In most cases, the doctor will be able to provide a diagnosis after a thorough physical examination.

If a doctor is unsure of the nodules’ origins, they may take a small sample of skin with a scrape. This allows them to examine the skin under a microscope. A skin scrape or biopsy can rule out other conditions that may look similar, like chickenpox, warts, monkeypox, and certain skin cancers.

It is important to see a doctor for any skin lesion that lasts longer than a few days. This can improve treatment options and, possibly, catch more dangerous conditions before they have a chance to develop further.

What are treatments for molluscum contagiosum?

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In most cases, molluscum contagiosum will go away on its own. Bumps typically disappear in several weeks or months without medical intervention. However, people may want to seek a physician’s support if the lesions are on the face and neck, as they can be emotionally distressing. Additionally people who have suppressed immune systems and those with other skin problems, like eczema, should seek out medical intervention.

Molluscum contagiosum treatments include both prescription medications and medical treatments. The most common medications include:

  • Topical creams that contain salicylic acid and iodine
  • Condylox, or topical podophyllotoxin
  • Cantharone, which is a blistering medication applied by the doctor in a medical setting
  • Trichloroacetic acid

Medical treatments are often effective at clearing a molluscum contagiosum infection. These can include:

  • Antiretroviral Therapy (ART): This treatment is most often recommended for people who have HIV or a different immune-suppressing condition.
  • Laser Therapy: In this type of therapy, the doctor uses a laser to destroy bumps individually,
  • Cryotherapy: Similar to with a wart, a doctor can use cryotherapy to freeze off each bump. They do this with liquid nitrogen.
  • Topical Therapy: Topical therapy involves the application of one of more prescription medications in the doctor’s office. The doctor does this to induce skin peeling. Removing these top layers of skin is usually enough for the body to shed molluscum contagiosum nodules.
  • Curettage: In this treatment, the doctor will scrape bumps off the skin with a small tool.

While these techniques are often effective for clearing molluscum contagiosum, they may be painful. Talk to your doctor about pain management before deciding on a path forward. Additionally, some of these medical treatments can lead to scarring.

What are potential complications of molluscum contagiosum?

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While complications of molluscum contagiosum are uncommon, they sometimes happen. The most common complications include:

  • Scarring
  • Disseminated secondary eczema, which can occur when the immune system overreacts to the virus
  • Impetigo, which is a skin infection
  • Conjunctivitis, an eye infection that can develop when lesions occur on the eyelid
  • Keratitis, which can cause the eyes to become sore and sensitive to light
  • Additional infection, which will require an antibiotic treatment
  • Auto-inoculation, which is when molluscum contagiosum spreads to a different part of the body

Seeing a doctor soon after lesions appear is the best way to prevent potential complications. If you believe the nodules on your body resemble this condition, schedule an appointment at your nearest convenience.

What is the outlook for people with molluscum contagiosum?

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Molluscum contagiosum is not dangerous and does not often cause serious complications. For most people, molluscum contagiosum will resolve on its own without medical intervention. This process is gradual. In many cases, it will take between 6 and 12 months for the lesions to disappear completely. For some people, it may take years for lesions to heal.

During the healing process, it is important to avoid places where transmission might be common. This includes gyms, fitness centers, and places where skin-to-skin contact is common. Failure to avoid these places may result in further viral spread.

If you are dealing with a molluscum contagiosum infection, seeing a doctor can help. Receiving a diagnosis and prescribed treatment can speed the healing process. Additionally, doing this can help prevent accidental spread to others, especially friends, family, and those sharing a living space.

If you suspect you have molluscum contagiosum, schedule a visit with your dermatologist or primary care physician. This is the best way to prevent spread of the virus, and it can help speed your own recovery.