Can Molluscum Be Prevented?
As a parent, you’re familiar with the rules for preventing the common cold: wash your hands often, sneeze or cough into your elbow, and don’t share items.
But what about skin diseases, like molluscum contagiosum?
Because molluscum contagiosum spreads differently than viruses like the common cold, prevention works a bit differently, especially because molluscum contagiosum lasts a lot longer than a cold. However, prevention is quite possible–you just have to know what you’re doing, and you have to be diligent.
Here’s what parents need to know to prevent molluscum contagiosum.
In order to understand how to prevent molluscum contagiosum, the best place to start is by understanding how it works.
Molluscum contagiosum is a relatively common viral skin infection caused by a form of poxvirus. It results in a mild skin disease characterized by lesions (bumps or growths) on the skin, which may appear anywhere on the body.
Don’t let the word scare you–lesions are simply small bumps, ranging in size from a pinhead to a pencil eraser. These bumps usually resolve themselves within six to twelve months, though some take as long as three to four years to resolve.
Molluscum contagiosum has one defining symptom: small, raised bumps on the skin, called mollusca (from the Latin word “mollusca” meaning “snail”). These are painless bumps and can occur alone or in groups.
The bumps are:
- Raised and round
- Smooth and firm
- Flesh-colored, pinkish, or white
- Often pearly in appearance
- Usually have a small indentation (umbilication) in the center
These bumps can appear anywhere on the body, including:
- Genital area, inner thighs, or lower abdomen (if transmitted sexually)
They are sometimes seen on the palms or bottoms of the feet, though this is uncommon.
Mollusca may become itchy, red, swollen, or sore if they are picked at or become infected. They’re also quite easy to remove by scratching or rubbing, which kids may do if they mistake it for a bug bite or acne. Unfortunately, this spreads the viral particles inside the mollusca to the adjacent skin.
To the untrained eye, the bumps might be initially mistaken for acne, especially if they appear on the face. You can distinguish mollusca by their persistence–unlike acne, mollusca can persist anywhere from six months to a year, sometimes longer.
The good news is that molluscum contagiosum is considered benign, even if it’s an annoyance. In fact, dermatologists usually recommend letting the lesions resolve on their own.
The other good news is that molluscum contagiosum doesn’t linger in your system like chickenpox, which can go dormant in your system for years and years only to reappear without warning. Once the bumps are gone, molluscum contagiosum is out of your system, and you won’t have any long-term effects from it.
Unfortunately, this also means that molluscum contagiosum infections do not provide immunity against future infections. It’s possible to keep getting molluscum contagiosum over and over again, no matter how many times you’ve had it before. Anytime you come into contact with an infected person or object, you can get re-infected.
There usually are not any long-term complications either unless the patient is immune-compromised, as in the case of HIV-positive patients. In those cases, the most common complication is a secondary opportunistic bacterial infection.
Molluscum contagiosum is caused by a form of poxvirus, known as the molluscum contagiosum virus. This is the same family of viruses as smallpox (not chickenpox, though–that’s caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is actually a form of herpes virus).
Poxviruses vary widely in severity and relative harmfulness (molluscum contagiosum is among the benign varieties). However, all poxviruses are characterized by the same symptoms: lesions, skin nodules, or disseminated rashes.
Molluscum contagiosum can infect anyone, though it’s most commonly seen in:
- Patients with atopic dermatitis
- Immune-compromised patients
- People living in warm, humid climates
It’s not that these patients are more susceptible to the virus per se, just that they’re the ones most likely to be exposed to it (based on medical records). Let’s break down why that is.
By far the most common molluscum contagiosum patients are children between the ages of 1 and 10, especially if they have a chronic skin condition like eczema.
It’s not clear why children are the most common molluscum contagiosum patients, but the currently accepted theory is that children in this age group are most likely to get it because they have more skin-to-skin contact with others than older children, teenagers, and adults. They’re also worse about hygiene, which means the virus has more chances to stick once it finds a child.
That said, teenagers and adults can also get molluscum contagiosum, though it’s often transmitted sexually for patients in these age groups. In that case, molluscum contagiosum is treated as a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
Athletes are another highly common group of molluscum contagiosum patients, especially athletes in contact sports or sports with shared equipment. Common examples include:
- Martial arts
For example, a gymnast using a bar could spread molluscum contagiosum to another gymnast using the same bar if the bar is not disinfected between uses. Wrestlers and football players may transmit the virus to each other through direct skin-to-skin contact. Swimmers can transmit the virus among themselves through shared personal items like towels.
Patients with Atopic Dermatitis (Eczema)
Eczema is a chronic skin condition 10% to 20% of infants and children and 3% of adults. Most children outgrow it by their tenth birthday, though some continue to have symptoms intermittently throughout their lives.
Eczema is usually characterized by itchy skin, followed by a rash. The skin may also be red, dry, leathery, or cracked. People usually refer to atopic dermatitis when they say “eczema”, i.e. the chronic form of eczema.
The nature of eczema, paired with the way molluscum contagiosum works, means that those with eczema are far more likely to get molluscum contagiosum than the average population. Eczema weakens the skin barrier and causes breaks in the skin, and molluscum contagiosum infects a new host by setting up shop in broken areas of your skin.
Patients with Weakened Immune Systems
Patients with weakened or compromised immune systems are also more likely to get molluscum contagiosum infections, since their immune system has a hard time fighting the virus off. This also means that molluscum infections in immune-compromised patients tends to last longer and be more severe than otherwise healthy patients.
Patients in this category include those with conditions that affect their immune systems, such as HIV-positive patients, and those on immune-suppressing drugs, such as those receiving cancer treatment or those with autoimmune disorders. In fact, severe molluscum contagiosum is now considered a marker of advanced HIV/AIDS.
People in Warm, Humid Climates
Last but not least are patients living in warm, humid climates, especially those in crowded areas (looking at you, Miami). There are a few reasons for this.
First, people in warm, humid climates usually have more of their skin exposed on a day-to-day basis due to the climate conditions. In a crowded area, where it’s quite easy to brush past someone else’s exposed arms, that makes it quite easy to spread a virus that relies on skin-to-skin contact.
Plus, if you live in a hot area, swimming pools are most likely a common feature of your life, and swimming pools are a common infection site.
So, how is molluscum contagiosum transmitted?
Typically, people transmit molluscum contagiosum in three ways:
- Skin-to-skin contact (including sexual contact with an infected partner)
- Shared personal items
- Scratching or rubbing the bumps (yours or someone else’s)
The virus works by getting through a small break in the skin. It causes a rash, and bumps appear two to six weeks later. The virus does not circulate in your system and instead remains contained within the bumps, which is why it is only transmitted via skin-to-skin contact or contact with infected items. It cannot spread via coughing or sneezing.
It is not clear whether the virus can be transmitted via contact with an intact bump or if the bump has to be broken (and thus directly spread viral particles contained inside the bump). Parents should assume that either option is possible.
This brings us back to the central question: can molluscum contagiosum be prevented?
The short answer? Yes.
The slightly longer answer? Yes, but with effort.
It is quite possible to prevent outbreaks of molluscum contagiosum. That said, the virus spreads fairly easily, and it’s easy to mistake for something else at first. Plus, if kids have it, especially young kids, it can be harder to contain, if only because it’s harder to make a young kid be careful than an adult.
As a parent, you have plenty of options to prevent molluscum contagiosum. The good news is that many of these practices are things you should be doing anyway, so it’s not terribly difficult to incorporate them into your routine.
And while it may be a bit harder with young kids, teaching them consistent good practices will make it infinitely easier to prevent infection. Here’s what you can do to prevent your kid from getting molluscum contagiosum in the first place.
Wash Hands Often
By far the most important thing you can do to prevent the spread of molluscum contagiosum is to wash your hands–wash them often and wash them well. The good news is that you should be doing this anyway, since it’s the best way to prevent any number of infections.
To do this, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water for at least twenty seconds. With molluscum contagiosum in particular, you should do this anytime you share personal items, touch surfaces an infected person touched, or have skin-to-skin contact with an infected person.
Keep in mind that because molluscum contagiosum sits in the epidermis (the topmost layer of skin) skin contact of any kind is a concern (as opposed to concerns about touching your eyes, mouth, nose, and face without washing your hands, which would be a concern for respiratory infections). Any type of skin contact can spread molluscum contagiosum.
For this reason, you should not replace hand washing with hand sanitizer. First of all, soap molecules literally tear virus particles apart, and second of all, sanitizing your hands does not remove the particles from your hands, which means there is still a risk of molluscum contagiosum infection.
Practice Good Skin Hygiene
Overall, good skin hygiene is your best defense against molluscum contagiosum, and it’s not limited to washing your hands.
Anytime you touch someone who is infected, or anytime you share personal items with someone, you should scrub your skin clean. This removes any potential molluscum viral particles before they can settle in your skin.
Yes, we know some kids are swamp things by nature and think of soap as their enemy. Some kids just aren’t very good about staying clean. But it will be even harder to manage molluscum contagiosum in these kids, which means it’s critical to drill good hygiene habits early and often.
Don’t Share Personal Items
Oh, and in case you hadn’t caught on yet, don’t share personal items of any kind. Other than skin-to-skin contact, this is the most common way for molluscum contagiosum to spread, especially among kids.
Any personal item that kids touch is fair game. This includes:
Every child should have their own personal items, especially if you’re worried about molluscum contagiosum spreading. While this might not encourage sharing between siblings, it ensures that kids don’t infect each other. If you want to attempt to strike a balance, then kids should only share items after said item is thoroughly washed, though this leaves a wide margin of error for kids being careless.
There are also some cases where sharing items is unavoidable. Football, for instance–that ball passes through countless hands on any given practice day, never mind a game. Gymnastics is another good example–there’s just no getting around sharing equipment.
If you’re worried, ask your child’s coaches and teachers about disinfection practices. Let them know that you’re worried about your kid getting skin infections (especially if they have eczema and can catch skin infections easily) and ask what can be done to limit the spread of germs.
Another good approach is to teach your kid how to sanitize shared equipment themselves before using anything that someone else has used, then prepping the equipment for use (you don’t want your kid catch molluscum contagiosum from using a bar that another kid used, but you don’t want them slipping off the bar either!)
Don’t Let Kids Bathe or Sleep Together
If your kids are attached at the hip and do everything together–including bathing and sleeping–now is the time to enforce some independence.
This helps enforce the rule of each child having their own personal items. Bathing each child separately allows them to use their own separate bath toys, bathing products, washcloths, and towels. With babies and toddlers in particular, it will make your life ten times easier.
Similarly, children should not sleep in the same bed. Each child should use their own sheets, blankets, pillows, comforters, stuffed animals, and so on. This is easier to enforce with babies in cribs. While it may be an uphill battle for toddlers who like to cuddle together or kids who like to climb in with their parents, it’s important for limiting infection. Plus, it’s an important tool for a child’s independence.
Treat Eczema in Kids
Unfortunately, kids with eczema are among the most likely patients to get molluscum contagiosum. For children with eczema, that means treating their eczema aggressively to prevent the spread of the virus.
For atopic dermatitis (as opposed to eczema caused by temporary skin irritation) this can be an uphill battle. Your foremost concern is preventing rashes, dry skin, and major eczema breakouts, which means preventing and managing eczema flare-ups.
For many patients, the best route is to consult a dermatologist. They can provide recommendations for products that control and prevent eczema flares, including prescriptions for severe eczema.
After that, it’s a good idea to stick to products designed for eczema. That generally means products without any fragrance, which are gentle on skin to avoid irritation and also include some kind of moisturizing agent and something to help rebuild the skin barrier, such as ceramides.
In many cases, parents find that the best route is a combination approach. Use what your dermatologist recommended along with products made for sensitive, eczema prone skin. Discourage your kids from using anything with a fragrance, and make sure they know how to clean their skin to avoid infections. They should also have lotion with them, especially if they wash their hands frequently.
Be Careful During Sports
If your child is an athlete, every practice and every game should be treated with care.
If possible, you don’t want your kid sharing equipment with other kids. Swimmers, for example, should always use their own towels, goggles, and the like. That said, this can be harder for certain sports like gymnastics or wrestling, where at least one piece of shared equipment (the mat) is obligatory.
If you can, purchase equipment for your child’s exclusive use. It’s more expensive than sharing, but there’s a much lower risk of infection. If possible, your child should also wear gloves when doing things like handling a ball. The same thing goes for other equipment–if you can put a protective layer of fabric between your child’s skin and shared gear, do it.
If your child is a swimmer, they should only use their own equipment. Children who have molluscum contagiosum should not go swimming unless all lesions are covered with watertight bandages.
Don’t Scratch or Pick Lesions
In case it wasn’t clear yet, scratching or picking lesions is a no-go. This applies to kids who already have molluscum contagiosum, but it’s also a rule for kids who are trying to avoid infection in the first place.
If the skin breaks open, it can infect adjacent skin. Or, if a child’s friend scratched them, it can infect their friend’s skin too.
The best way to approach this with kids is to tell them to be careful. If a friend has the virus, tell them to avoid skin-to-skin contact or sharing personal items, especially if their friend isn’t covering the bumps.
Cover Bumps with Bandages or Clothing
This one is most helpful in preventing the spread of molluscum contagiosum throughout the body, but it’s also helpful in preventing infections shared among siblings.
Mollusca should always be clean and covered, either with clothing, medical tape, or bandages. The safest option is to cover bumps with tape and bandages first, then with clothing, especially for babies and toddlers who have to change clothes pretty much every time they eat. The technique is also helpful for kids who play sports–this allows them to transition easily into practice clothes without any worry.
Plus, covering bumps with bandages before clothing prevents the bumps from touching clothing, which would make the clothing an infected item. If a child has molluscum contagiosum, you should still wash their clothes separately, but it provides extra peace of mind for parents and makes it less of a production every time you change your kid’s clothes.
We know that molluscum contagiosum is a nightmare for parents. In many ways, you have to watch everything you do. That’s why prevention is so critical–and why it’s so important to have the right tools on hand.
That’s where we come in. Our CLn BodyWash and CLn SportWash are made to facilitate a strong hygiene regimen in daily life, tough on germs but gentle on skin. Even children (older than 6 months) prone to rashes and skin irritation can use our products safely.