How Did My Child Get Molluscum Contagiosum?
Parents, let’s be honest: managing an infection in your kids is exhausting.
Think about the last time your kid had a cold. Between dirty tissues, the constant fight over hand-washing, and all-around misery, it was kind of a miracle that the whole block didn’t catch the bug.
And if your kid catches an infectious skin disease, like molluscum contagiosum? It’s a nightmare.
The best place to start is figuring out how your child got molluscum contagiosum in the first place–and how you can prevent the rest of the family from getting it. Here’s what parents need to know to keep this pesky skin condition contained.
In order to understand where your child might have gotten molluscum contagiosum, it helps to understand how it works and where it comes from.
Molluscum contagiosum is a skin infection caused by a poxvirus, the molluscum contagiosum virus. It’s a relatively common and mildly contagious virus, though it is not harmful and usually resolves on its own.
Signs of Molluscum Contagiosum
Molluscum contagiosum has one distinctive symptom: skin lesions, known as mollusca. Don’t let the word lesion scare you–mollusca are simply small, raised bumps on the skin.
These bumps are round, smooth, firm, and painless, ranging in size from a pinhead to a pencil eraser. They’re usually pink, white, or flesh-colored, often with a pearly appearance. They typically have a small indentation in the center.
Mollusca can occur anywhere on the body, including:
- Genital area, lower abdomen, and inner thighs (if transmitted sexually)
Bumps can appear on the palms of the hands or the bottoms of the feet, but this is rare.
Mollusca may be itchy, and scratching the bumps reveals that they’re easily removed. That’s where your kid gets into trouble. For one thing, mollusca can become red and inflamed if scratched, and more importantly, scratching the bumps can easily spread the virus to adjacent skin.
Unfortunately, because mollusca may resemble body acne at first glance, the untrained eye might mistake the bumps for acne. The key differentiator (to the untrained eye) is that mollusca last a lot longer than acne–bumps typically resolve between six to twelve months, though some take as long as four years to clear completely.
What Causes Molluscum?
Molluscum are caused by the molluscum contagiosum virus, a form of poxvirus. Smallpox was a form of poxvirus, though it no longer exists in the wild.
All poxviruses are characterized by the same symptoms: the formation of lesions, rashes, or skin nodules. Poxviruses can occur in humans and in animals, though molluscum contagiosum only occurs in humans and is only transmitted among humans.
The key to molluscum contagiosum is the characteristic bumps. These bumps contain the virus particles since molluscum contagiosum does not travel below the skin surface. That’s why scratching the bumps spreads the virus to the adjacent skin.
Long-term effects are mixed.
As previously noted, molluscum contagiosum is not considered dangerous or even harmful. If you have an infection, it lives on the surface of the skin in the bumps, and once the bumps are gone, you no longer have molluscum contagiosum in your system.
The good news is that molluscum contagiosum doesn’t lurk in your system, like chickenpox. Chickenpox can go dormant in your system for years, even decades, only to resurface without warning many years later. Molluscum contagiosum doesn’t linger–no more bumps means no more molluscum contagiosum.
The bad news is that because the virus is in and out, previous infections do not protect you from future infections. You don’t gain immunity to the virus after an infection, which is why kids can get it again and again.
Molluscum contagiosum is considered largely benign, so most people don’t see any complications from the bumps. In fact, the bumps usually resolve themselves without any scarring (if your child doesn’t scratch the bumps).
The most common complication is a secondary, opportunistic infection caused by bacteria, though this is usually seen in immunocompromised patients.
Now that you know what molluscum contagiosum is and how it works, let’s talk about who gets it–and why these groups are more likely to get a molluscum contagiosum infection than others.
While anyone can get molluscum contagiosum, the most common group seen in doctors’ offices is children, specifically children between the ages of one and ten.
This is not because childrens’ immune systems are any more susceptible to molluscum contagiosum. Any person of any age can get a molluscum contagiosum infection.
So why is it seen so often in children?
The most likely explanation is that children aren’t as good about hygiene as adults. They’re also more likely to share things like toys or towels. Basically, children in this age group have the most skin-to-skin contact compared to every other age category, and any parent who has dissuaded a one-year-old from touching something knows that it’s like herding cats.
Unfortunately, this close contact and innate adventurousness mean that kids are more likely to get molluscum contagiosum infections.
Another group that commonly gets molluscum contagiosum is athletes, particularly athletes in contact sports or sports with shared equipment. These include:
- Martial arts
Wrestling is a classic example of a full-contact sport. Picture the last time your kid was in a wrestling match and you know why it’s a transmission nightmare.
However, even sports with limited contact can still be transmission nightmares due to shared equipment. If your child does gymnastics, for example, touching a mat or bar after a child with molluscum contagiosum used it without disinfection between uses is a recipe for infection. Even swimmers sharing towels can spread molluscum contagiosum.
People with Eczema
If your child has eczema, they unfortunately fall in another category of patients who are more likely to get molluscum contagiosum infections. This has to do with how molluscum contagiosum infects someone.
Eczema, or atopic dermatitis, is a chronic skin condition whose symptoms include:
- Dry skin
- Thickened, cracked, or scaly skin
- Reddish to brownish-gray patches, resembling rashes
- Small, raised bumps
When your skin is healthy, it forms a protective barrier against outside microorganisms. But with eczema, your skin barrier is often compromised, either through dry, peeling skin or through rashes and cracked skin.
For molluscum contagiosum, this is practically an engraved invitation. Molluscum contagiosum infections happen when the virus finds a break in your skin and sets up shop. Unfortunately, children with eczema have breaks all over their skin.
Those With Trouble Fighting Off Infections
If your child has a weak immune system or is immune-compromised, they may be more susceptible to molluscum contagiosum infections than most, in much the same way that they’re more susceptible to any other infection compared to the average population.
Unfortunately, children with weakened or compromised immune systems also tend to have more severe cases of molluscum contagiosum, and the infections they get are often harder to treat or take more time to resolve on their own (these are the cases where bumps could last a few years).
Sexually Active People
We know you don’t want to think about your kids having sex. But if you have teenagers, sexual contact is a major point of concern with molluscum contagiosum.
Molluscum contagiosum travels through skin-to-skin contact, which means sexual contact with an infected person can give your kid molluscum contagiosum. When transmitted this way, it’s considered a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
Awkward though it is, there’s an easy way to tell if your teenager got molluscum contagiosum through sexual contact: molluscum contagiosum only appears in the genital area, lower abdomen, and inner thighs when transmitted sexually.
Now, to be fair to your teenager, it is possible to spread molluscum contagiosum to other parts of your body by touching a lesion and then touching somewhere else (that’s called autoinoculation). So if your kid thinks the bumps are body acne and picks at them before, say, shaving their legs, they may spread an infection acquired through other means.
People Living in Warm, Humid Areas
Last but not least are people living in warm, humid areas, especially crowded areas.
For one thing, hot and humid weather means lighter clothes with less skin coverage, which means more exposed skin for molluscum contagiosum to capitalize on. And if you live in a crowded area (a city, for instance) it’s quite easy to brush past someone in a crowd.
Plus, hot and humid weather means you’re probably spending more time in swimming pools, which means a whole lot of high-touch surfaces and kids sharing pool toys and towels.
In short? It’s a field day for molluscum contagiosum.
That explains why your child is likely to get molluscum contagiosum, but it still leads us back to your driving question: how did my child get it?
Molluscum contagiosum isn’t like the flu. It’s not airborne. You have to touch the virus in order to risk an infection. Because of that, most people (kids included) get the virus in three ways:
- Skin-to-skin contact
- Contact with contaminated objects
- Scratching or rubbing bumps
All three options are equally infectious. It just depends on what your kid’s been up to. Let’s break it down.
Skin-to-skin contact is one of the most common avenues of infection, especially for young children who have quite a lot of skin-to-skin contact.
Molluscum contagiosum lives in the epidermis (the outermost layer of skin) rather than circulating through your system. In fact, all the virus particles are contained within the lesions. This is important for virus transmission. It’s not clear whether the virus can spread between people simply through contact with intact lesions or if the lesion has to be broken (and thus spread the core material).
What we do know is that broken lesions absolutely spread viral material. This makes it tricky, given that kids may initially scratch the lesions like a bug bite. And either way, you have to assume that touching lesions carries the risk of spreading infection, which means any skin-to-skin contact is fair game.
Contact with Contaminated Objects
Another common source of transmission is contact with contaminated objects. This is why athletes in contact sports or sports with shared equipment get molluscum contagiosum so often. Of course, there are plenty of opportunities for your kid to touch contaminated objects even if they aren’t an athlete.
The community swimming pool, for example.
Scientists still aren’t sure whether chlorinated water contributes to spreading, or how long the molluscum contagiosum virus can survive outside a host (and thus whether contact with water can infect other swimmers without skin-to-skin contact).
Scientists believe the virus most likely spreads through activities related to swimming rather than swimming itself. Children sharing pool toys, towels, kick boards, flotation devices, or other items are great examples of this.
Scratching or Rubbing Bumps
As noted earlier, scientists still aren’t sure whether touching intact molluscum contagiosum bumps is sufficient to spread the virus, but parents should assume that any contact with the bumps is fair game. That includes other infected children and their possessions.
Unfortunately, one easy way for kids to spread molluscum contagiosum (on their own skin and others) is by scratching or rubbing the bumps. The bumps are easy to remove this way, but doing so breaks the mollusca and spreads the core material over the adjacent skin.
Also, they can be itchy, so kids (especially young ones) may scratch or pick at them as if they’re bug bites. If they then use a towel which their friend or sibling borrows, or if they hug their friend, that qualifies as a transmission risk.
Unfortunately, this also makes molluscum contagiosum a nightmare in young kids, since it’s hard to keep them from picking (especially if you don’t know that the bumps are molluscum contagiosum yet).
In short? Molluscum contagiosum is easy to mistake for something else at first glance, and it’s relatively easy for kids to spread it among themselves. For young kids, it’s even worse.
What’s a parent to do?
The good news is that there are ways to manage molluscum contagiosum and prevent your child from spreading it (either by worsening their own infection or spreading it to the rest of the family). You just have to be proactive. Here are some of the best ways for parents to manage molluscum contagiosum in kids.
Above all, do not let your kids scratch the bumps. Doing so will only spread virus particles around. That can be tricky in young kids, but there are a few ways to make it manageable.
Your best bet is to cover the bumps. For young kids who aren’t old enough to reason with or for children who are bad about washing their hands, this is especially useful since you prevent them from touching the bumps at all.
When you cover the bumps, use medical tape, bandage, or clothing. In young kids, especially little ones who make messes and change clothes a lot throughout the day, it’s a good idea to bandage or tape the spot first before putting clothes on–that way, clothes don’t touch the bumps either. When you remove coverings, make sure to dispose of them at home in a sanitary setting and replace them with clean coverings right away.
For children with eczema, a good moisturizing routine is also critical to preventing scratching. Remember, dry skin is itchy and irritated, and it isn’t really fair to young kids to expect them not to itch if the spot is making them nuts.
Ask your dermatologist for recommendations, but either way, make sure that your child only uses products made for sensitive skin (no fragrance, clean and short ingredient list, and moisturizing agents). Look for products designed for eczema.
Keep the Bumps Clean
Another good way to keep kids from itching is to keep the bumps clean. This reduces the risk of opportunistic bacterial infections and cleans off any core viral particles that might have leaked out of a broken mollusca bump.
To do this, wash them with a gentle antibacterial soap and a clean washcloth. Only use the washcloth directly on the bumps.
Once you’re done, set the washcloth aside somewhere your kids won’t get at it, dry the bumps with a clean towel and set it aside, wash your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds, and then cover the bumps again with medical tape or bandages. For the sake of thoroughness, it’s a good idea to wash your hands a second time after covering the bumps, just in case.
Bathe Them Separately
If bath time is your kids’ favorite playtime, it’s time to bathe kids separately. Bathing children together is a common way to spread molluscum contagiosum among them thanks to shared bath toys, shared towels, and high-touch surfaces.
If you can, bathe the child with molluscum contagiosum last–this gives you a chance to disinfect the bathtub before their siblings use it tomorrow. Your child should also use separate bath toys, washcloths, and towels, all of which should be kept separate from the rest and disinfected between uses.
Your child should also use multiple towels–one for the molluscum bumps and one for uninfected skin. This reduces the risk of spreading the virus to other parts of the body. You should also wash towels right away after use–you’ll go through a lot of towels, but it reduces the risk of spreading the virus through a re-used towel.
The same thing goes for washcloths–one for uninfected skin and one for mollusca. If you usually use something else (a loofah, for instance) now is the time to switch to washcloths. You can bleach them eight ways to Sunday between uses.
On a related note, used washcloths and towels should be kept in separate laundry containers from the rest of the laundry. It might seem like a lot of extra effort, but it will significantly reduce the risk of contamination.
If your kids tend to think of their beds as peapods and themselves as peas sharing the pod, now is the time to enforce sleeping in separate beds. The same goes for kids who tend to get up and sleep in their parents’ bed.
It might take some adjusting, but the reality is that a kid with molluscum contagiosum has to use their own bedsheets, blankets, and pillows to avoid contaminating everything else. Plus, you have no conscious control of yourself when you’re, you know, unconscious, so there’s no way for kids to avoid skin-to-skin contact while they’re asleep.
In short, if molluscum contagiosum is part of the equation, the child has to sleep on their own.
Be Proactive with School and Sports
Your children’s teachers should be informed of molluscum contagiosum, especially if your child is in daycare and spends a lot of time around shared toys playing with other kids or if they’re young enough to still need diaper changes.
Regardless of their age, mollusca should always be cleaned and bandaged by the parents before the child goes to school/daycare for the day. If you have a young child who would need help changing dressings, let the daycare workers know and walk them through how to change dressings if they’re obviously soiled.
Children old enough to do it themselves should go to school with their own bandages, tape, and cleaning supplies. They should also apply fresh bandaging and extra protection before any sports.
We know molluscum contagiosum can be a nightmare for parents. But if you have the right supplies, managing molluscum contagiosum is that much easier.
Our CLn BodyWash and CLn SportWash are gentle but effective, designed for routine daily usage even for kids 6 months and older prone to skin irritation or frequent infections. It’s a parent’s best friend.