Molluscum contagiosum (MC) is similar to warts in that it is a caused a virus. Sometimes called “water warts,” MC bumps are are harmless and dome-shaped. They sometimes have a dent in the center. There are usually no other symptoms associated with MC other than sometimes a mild itch.
Molluscum can be seen in patients of all ages and genders, but it is generally more common in children. If seen in adults, it is usually considered a sexually related condition or is seen in adult patients whose immune systems are compromised. Patients who have certain skin conditions, such as eczema, are more likely to become infected. If those patients do become infected, the breakout often spreads more quickly. Patients with MC can pass the virus from person to person with direct contact.
Wellness & Prevention
There is no way to prevent MC completely. The virus spreads easily through skin-to-skin contact (including sexual contact), or by touching a contaminated item directly on the skin. However, you can help limit the spread of the virus with a few simple precautions:
- Wash your hands regularly
- Avoid touching, scratching or rubbing the bumps
- Don’t shave over the top of MC lesions, which can help spread the virus
- Don’t share personal items like clothes or towels with others
- Avoid sexual contact if you have MC on or near your genital area
- Keep bumps covered if you’re concerned you could come into skin contact with others
Molluscum contagiosum usually goes away on its own between six and 12 months. Some outbreaks can last as long as three years. While bumps are present, patients run the risk of spreading lesions to other people or to other parts of their own body.
Like warts, there are several treatment options available for MC, but the infection can often require multiple treatment sessions before improving. Sometimes, you may need to visit your doctor every few weeks for the best results. If left untreated, MC bumps can grow pea-sized or even up to the size of a marble.
Some MC treatments are performed in the office during a visit with your dermatologist, while others are prescribed by your doctor and then used at home:
- Curettage is an in-office treatment that is very effective and has few side effects. Your dermatologist uses a special instrument to scrape the lesions off of the skin. If performed well and with a good instrument, this shouldn’t be painful. However, you may want or need a topical or an injected local anesthetic to numb the area first.
- Cryotherapy is an in-office treatment that uses liquid nitrogen to help destroy the lesion. Cryotherapy also causes a positive immune system response that can help clear the infection. Sometimes, freezing off a lesion can cause discomfort during or after treatment. There may also be blistering afterward, or skin discoloration.
- Cantharidin is a toxin that comes from the beetle juice made by blister beetles. Cantharidin is applied to the skin around the bump, which causes blistering. As the skin heals, it peels away, along with the lesions. Sometimes, it takes more than one treatment to see results, but application should be painless.
- Tretinoin (brand name Retin-A) is a cream or gel that is also used in the treatment of acne and wrinkles. It is prescribed by your dermatologist and then applied at home in a thin layer directly to the lesions. Tretinoin can cause irritation, particularly in patients with eczema. However, many patients find this treatment to cause less discomfort overall and reduce the risk of skin discoloration compared to other alternatives.
- Imiquimod is a topical cream that is prescribed by your dermatologist and then applied to lesions at home. This painless treatment helps the immune system in fighting the lesions, although success rates vary.
Many of these treatments are minimally invasive, and shouldn’t require any aftercare. Others, like curettage, can leave behind a small wound that needs to be kept clean and covered as it heals. Some treatments may need to be applied more than once for the best results.
Many people skip treatments and wait for molluscum lesions to clear up on their own instead. Once the bumps have healed, the virus is gone from the body, although it is possible to get infected again. The main benefit of treatment is to keep growths from getting larger, which also keeps any scars smaller. The chance of minimal scarring is highest with early treatment. Also, as soon as the lesions are gone, you won’t be contagious anymore, which is another good reason to seek early MC treatment.