Molluscum contagiosum (MC) is a common skin problem caused by a viral infection in the top layers of the skin. MC causes one or more lesions or bumps on the skin, and looks something like warts or pimples. It is a common problem in children but can also occur in adults.
MC is caused by the molluscum contagiosum virus (MCV), a member of the poxvirus family. It can be spread through skin-to-skin contact, especially during sexual activity that involves friction and skin irritation. MCV is more likely to cause skin lesions in people with compromised immune systems, although many adults with healthy immune systems can develop MC.
MC does not progress to more serious diseases, such as cancer. However, MC skin lesions can be bothersome and disfiguring.
What are the symptoms, and how is it diagnosed?
MC looks like small flesh-colored or pink dome-shaped bumps. They are usually shiny in appearance, and each bump typically has a small indentation in the peak of its dome. The bumps usually form in clusters, notably on the thighs, buttocks, groin and lower abdomen, and may occasionally appear on the external genital and anal region and on the face and eyelids.
MC lesions can cause itching or tenderness in the area, but in most cases the lesions cause few problems. Untreated lesions can last from two weeks to five years. People with compromised immune systems, including those infected with HIV, can experience severe MC lesions, so-called giant lesions, and often have a much wider spread of lesions.
Very often, a health care professional can diagnose MC simply by looking at the bumps. Sometimes, a specimen needs to be collected from one of the bumps for further analysis. Collecting a specimen is relatively painless, and results from the laboratory are often available within a week.
How is it treated?
While MC lesions can go away on their own, treatment is often recommended. Treating MC reduces the risk of lesions traveling to other parts of the body and helps to prevent transmission to others.
The treatments used for MC are similar to those used to manage warts (caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV). These include:
Topical medications: Topical gels and creams—such as podophyllum, trichloroacetic acid (Tri-Chlor), cantharidin (Verr-Canth), tretinoin (Avita, Retin-A), tincture of iodine, silver nitrate, or phenol—can be applied directly to the MC lesions. Some of these medications can be applied at home while others need to be applied by a healthcare provider, often a dermatologist.
Surgical options: These include cryotherapy (applications of liquid nitrogen to freeze MC lesions), laser treatment, curettage (scraping of MC lesions), and electrocautery (an electric needle used to remove MC bumps). These procedures are always performed in a doctor’s office, often by a dermatologist.
Oral medications: Some oral medications that can be prescribed are griseofulvin (Fulvicin) and cimetidine (Tagamet). Griseofulvin is actually approved to treat certain fungal infections, but it has also been shown to treat MC lesions. Cimetidine can be used to treat MC lesions, particular if the area becomes inflamed or itchy.
How is it prevented?
The molluscum contagiosum virus, which causes MC, can be hard to avoid, given that it is spread by skin-to-skin contact. The best tip is to avoid touching or brushing up against a partner’s MC lesions.
If you do get MC, you should avoid touching the lesion and then touching another part of the body—or another person—without washing your hands. This can help prevent the lesions from spreading.
Also, keeping the immune system healthy is the best way to prevent MC lesions, even if you are exposed to the molluscum contagiosum virus. This means keeping viral load low and T-cells high using antiretroviral treatment and by adopting a healthy lifestyle.
Are there any experimental treatments?
There may be new treatments being developed for the treatment of MC lesions and the molluscum contagiosum virus. If you would like to find out if clinical trials of new MC treatments are being conducted, visit ClinicalTrials.gov, a site run by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The site has information about all HIV-related clinical studies in the United States. For more info, you can call their toll-free number at 1-800-HIV-0440 (1-800-448-0440) or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last Reviewed: January 18, 2016