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Molluscum contagiosum: Overview

Common in children

Molluscum contagiosum is most common in children who are 1 to 10 years old.

young children in classroom

What is molluscum contagiosum?

Caused by a virus, molluscum contagiosum causes small bumps on the skin that tend to clear with time.

Contagious: Yes

While molluscum contagiosum may sound like a dreaded spell from a Harry Potter story, it’s actually a skin condition that’s relatively harmless.

You can get molluscum at any age, but it’s most common in children who are 1 to 10 years old. Children who have atopic dermatitis (often called eczema) tend to get it more easily.

How people get molluscum contagiosum

As the name suggests, molluscum is contagious. You can catch it by:

  • Having skin-to-skin contact with someone who has molluscum bumps on their skin.

  • Touching something that someone who has molluscum bumps used, such as an unwashed towel, wrestling mat, or kickboard.

  • Sharing unwashed clothes or sports equipment with someone who has molluscum.

Often, the only sign of this skin infection is small bumps on the skin. These bumps tend to be painless, but they can itch.

Why you want to avoid scratching, rubbing, and picking at the bumps

Scratching, rubbing, or picking at the bumps can spread the virus to other parts of your body. The bumps can develop anywhere on your skin, in the moist tissue lining your eyelids, and in the genital area.

Scratching and picking at the bumps may also cause another problem. The germs on your hands and nails can infect the bumps with bacteria. If this happens, the bumps can feel painful. You may develop a fever.

That’s why it’s so important to:

  • Avoid scratching or picking at the bumps

  • Keep the skin with bumps clean

  • Wash your hands often

When to see a board-certified dermatologist

It’s important to make sure that the bumps are due to molluscum. If you’re unsure, seeing a board-certified dermatologist can help. These doctors have expertise in diagnosing more than 3,000 diseases that affect the skin. A dermatologist can often diagnose molluscum by looking at the bumps.

If you have molluscum and a healthy immune system, your dermatologist may recommend letting the bumps clear on their own. They will go away without leaving a trace, but this takes time. On average, the bumps clear in 6 to 18 months without treatment. Sometimes, this takes longer.

Treatment may be recommended if the bumps are painful, itchy, or infected with bacteria. Treatment can also be helpful when a child is likely to spread molluscum to other children or has eczema.

How long is molluscum contagiosum contagious?

It’s contagious until all the bumps go away.

As the bumps start to clear, you may notice that they look red and swollen. This change can be worrisome for parents, but it’s a good sign. It means the body’s immune system is fighting off the virus. You can see what this change looks like, along with other pictures of molluscum bumps, at: Molluscum contagiosum: Signs and symptoms.

Getty Images

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Molluscum contagiosum: Risk factors.” Page last reviewed May 2015. Page last accessed March 22, 2019.

Jahnke MN, Hwang S, et al. “Cantharidin for treatment of facial molluscum contagiosum: A retrospective review.” J Am Acad Dermatol. 2018;78(1):198-200.

Tom W, Fallon Friedlander S. “Poxvirus infections.” In: Wolff K, Goldsmith LA, et al. Fitzpatrick’s Dermatology in General Medicine (seventh edition). McGraw Hill Medical, New York, 2008: 1911-13.

van der Wouden JC, van der Sande R, et al. “Cochrane Review: Interventions for cutaneous molluscum contagiosum.” Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017;5:CD004767.

Wanat KA, Dominguez AR, et al. “Bedside diagnostics in dermatology: Viral, bacterial, and fungal infections.” J Am Acad Dermatol. 2017;77(2):197-218.