Contracting molluscum contagiosum can be a bit scary, especially because spreading it is so easy. But you don’t have anything to fear from molluscum contagiosum–it’s not considered a serious or harmful virus, and it doesn’t cause any long-term negative effects.
If anything, the virus is more of a nuisance.
Because of this, taking measures to avoid spreading the virus is your best bet to get molluscum contagiosum out of your life (and keep it from coming back). Here’s a look at how molluscum contagiosum works and what you can do to keep it from spreading.
Molluscum contagiosum is a viral skin infection caused by a type of poxvirus called the molluscum contagiosum virus (the same viral family as smallpox). Poxviruses vary in their severity, but they all share the same characteristic feature: they all cause lesions, skin nodules, or a disseminated skin rash.
Molluscum contagiosum comes from the Latin word “molluscum” meaning “snail”, but despite its name, it’s a human-only virus. The virus solely relies on humans as hosts, so humans can only get it from other humans (as opposed to some other poxviruses, which can be transmitted from animals to humans).
The good news is that molluscum contagiosum is considered a mild, relatively benign virus. It’s annoyingly persistent, and it’s relatively easy to spread, but it does not cause long-term harm. In fact, dermatologists often recommend allowing the virus to resolve itself rather than pursuing treatment.
Like other poxviruses, the molluscum contagiosum virus has one defining symptom: skin growths, or lesions, which are referred to as mollusca.
Mollusca may be anywhere from the size of a pinhead to the size of a pencil eraser. These mollusca contain a cheesy substance–this is the viral matter. The virus sits on the epidermis (the outermost layer of skin), all of the viral particles in your system are contained within the lesions.
Here’s what you can usually expect from mollusca:
- Small, round, raised, and firm growths
- Pinkish, white, or flesh-colored
- Umbilication (indentation) at the center of the growth
- Often pearly in appearance
- May become itchy, swollen, red, or sore (especially if picked)
The lesions may appear anywhere on the body, including:
- Genital region, inner thighs, or lower abdomen (usually through sexual contact)
They are rarely found on the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet.
At first, they may be mistaken for acne or even a bug bite, and because they itch, it’s common to scratch them. The lesions are quite easy to scratch off with your fingernails, which furthers the mistaken belief that they’re just acne.
However, you’ll quickly discover what distinguishes mollusca from body acne: unlike body acne, mollusca can persist anywhere from six to twelve months, though some persist as long as three to four years or even five years in rare cases.
You also should not attempt to “pop” them like you would pop a pimple. The growths contain viral particles, which means breaking or removing the lesion may spread the virus to the adjacent skin and your fingers.
The good news is that molluscum contagiosum does not work like chickenpox, which can sit dormant in your system for years only to reappear without warning.
Molluscum contagiosum does not circulate through your system at all. It is entirely contained on the epidermis, specifically within the mollusca. This means that when the mollusca have cleared, you no longer have molluscum contagiosum in your system.
Because of this, molluscum contagiosum does not generally have long-term effects. On the bright side, this means that most people have no negative long-term effects from molluscum contagiosum. On the other hand, this also means that unlike a cold, an infection of molluscum contagiosum does not grant immunity against future infections.
The one group that may see long-term effects or complications are immune-compromised patients. In these patients, the most common concern is opportunistic bacterial infections, which should be treated aggressively.
To reiterate, molluscum contagiosum is solely a skin infection. It does not circulate through your system and instead sits on the surface of your skin. This means it is not airborne or bloodborne and cannot be transmitted via bodily fluids.
It can only be transmitted via direct, physical skin-to-skin contact, or via skin contact with fomites (inanimate objects which may become infected with the virus). Common examples of fomites include:
- Bathing sponges
- Pool equipment
- Athletic equipment
Someone who already has molluscum contagiosum may spread the virus on their own body by scratching or picking at the lesions and then touching somewhere else on the body, or through shaving or electrolysis. This is called autoinoculation.
Molluscum contagiosum may also be transmitted by sexual contact with an infected partner–not the exchange of bodily fluids, but rather via skin-to-skin contact with an infected part of the body. In these cases, molluscum contagiosum is treated as a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Many (though not all) adults get molluscum contagiosum this way.
To be clear: because the virus is entirely contained within the lesions, transmission only happens through contact with the lesions in some form. It is not clear whether contact with an intact lesion is sufficient to spread the virus or if it’s necessary to break the lesion and spread the core viral material, so you should assume that either option is possible.
Molluscum contagiosum is fairly common, so don’t be surprised if you or someone in your family catches it. Anyone can get molluscum contagiosum, though health records show that the most common patients are:
- Immune-compromised patients
- Eczema patients
- Patients living in warm, humid climates
Let’s break it down.
By far the most common molluscum contagiosum patients are children between the ages of 1 and 10.
This is not because children’s immune systems are more vulnerable to the virus. The prevailing theory among doctors is that children in this age group often get molluscum contagiosum because they have a lot more skin-to-skin contact than older children, teenagers, and adults, which makes them statistically more likely for transmission.
It’s also possible that because young children aren’t as good about hygiene as adults, it’s easier for kids to spread the virus among themselves.
Another common patient group is athletes, especially those in contact sports or sports requiring shared equipment. Common examples include:
In wrestling, for instance, skin-to-skin contact is the primary concern. In gymnastics, the primary concern is shared equipment, such as mats, bars, vaults, and the like. Even a sport that’s low-contact, like baseball, can easily spread infections through shared gloves, bats, and helmets, or just touching the baseball.
Unfortunately, immune-compromised or immune-suppressed patients are more likely to get molluscum contagiosum, and they’re more likely to get severe, persistent mollusca when they do. In fact, molluscum contagiosum is so common in HIV/AIDS patients that persistent molluscum sores are considered a diagnostic hallmark of severe, untreated HIV.
Patients in this category include patients with compromised immune systems, such as HIV/AIDS patients. It also includes those on immune-suppressing drugs, such as cancer patients or patients with autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis.
The biggest concern for immune-compromised patients is their ability to fight off the virus. These are cases when the dermatologist will recommend treatment rather than allowing the virus to run its course.
Molluscum contagiosum is a skin infection, and it spreads by finding a small break in your skin and setting up shop there, causing a rash to appear two to six weeks later.
This means that individuals with a compromised skin barrier are more likely to get molluscum contagiosum infections. The most common patients in this category are eczema patients, especially children and babies with eczema.
Most of the time, we’re referring to atopic dermatitis (as opposed to eczema caused by temporary skin irritation). Atopic dermatitis is a chronic skin condition causing dryness, irritation, thickened, cracked, or scaly skin.
In other words, the skin of an eczema patient isn’t serving as the protective barrier it ought to, which means there are a lot more avenues for molluscum contagiosum to make its way in.
Patients in Warm, Humid Climates
Last but not least are patients in warm, humid climates, especially highly populated areas. This isn’t because their immune systems are any weaker, but rather because hot, humid climates mean you have to wear clothes with more exposed skin as a matter of comfort and practicality.
In highly populated areas, that also means that there are a lot more opportunities for direct skin-to-skin contact, intentional or otherwise.
So, to recap: molluscum contagiosum is spread through physical contact with an infected person or object, and it is most commonly seen among those with a great deal of physical contact (like young children), those who share equipment (such as gymnasts), and those whose skin barrier is compromised (such as eczema patients).
So in order to prevent the spread of molluscum contagiosum, you have to avoid touching lesions or touching anything that touched lesions. Here are a few ways to do that–for yourself, for your kids, or for anyone else.
Wash Your Hands
Because touch is the foremost concern with molluscum contagiosum, washing your hands is your best defense against spreading the virus.
Anytime you touch the lesions, clean them, dress them, or touch anything that may have touched them, you should scrub your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
While hand sanitizing may protect you against bacteria, keep in mind that your concern with molluscum contagiosum is spreading viral particles to adjacent skin. Hand sanitizing leaves virus particles sitting on your skin rather than washing them off. Water isn’t sufficient on its own, either–water can wash some particles off, but it’s not very good at competing with the glue-like bond between skin and viral particles.
Soapy water is a different story–the chemistry of soap means it literally pulls the virus apart. Every virus is a self-assembled nanoparticle whose weakest link is the lipid bilayer (the fat membrane holding the virus together). Soap contains amphiphiles, which are basically particles that attract both water and fats (like oil). The trouble for a virus (or oil on your dishes) is that water and fat don’t get along, which means that when soap amphiphiles compete with fats in the virus membrane, they pull water particles in with them, tearing the fat membrane apart in the process. It has the same effect on the proteins and RNA holding the rest of the virus together, which renders the virus unable to replicate.
Granted, soap needs some time to achieve this–a minimum of 20 seconds. You can count it out, sing the Happy Birthday song twice, or sing the 20-second chorus of another song, like “Africa” by Toto, “Jolene” by Dolly Parton, “Mr. Brightside” by the Killers, or “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey. You can also put on your favorite song and have a 20-second dance party.
Keep Your Skin Clean
Of course, keeping your skin clean isn’t limited to your hands (even though your hands touch more items in a day than any other part of your body). Your skin should always be kept clean, including mollusca.
For one thing, keeping the lesions clean prevents the risk of opportunistic infections, which prevents the bumps from becoming itchy and intolerable.
For another, it removes any viral particles that may be sitting on your skin, which eliminates the risk of spreading the virus to other parts of your skin or spreading the virus to others.
To do this, wash mollusca thoroughly each day with soap and water, along with the rest of your skin. Use two separate washcloths, one for uninfected skin and one for mollusca. Wash your uninfected skin first, then set the washcloth aside, clean the bumps, set the washcloth aside separately, and thoroughly clean your hands for twenty seconds.
If you can, try to use a skin hygiene product that won’t cause irritation, especially if you have eczema. This will reduce the risk of itchiness.
Keep Bumps Covered
Keeping the bumps clean is the first step in the battle. After that, you have to prevent anyone (including yourself) from touching them. The easiest way to do this is by keeping them covered at all times.
You can cover the bumps with clothing, medical tape, or bandages. The safest option is to dress the bumps with medical tape and bandages first before donning your clothes. This eliminates any risk of clothes spreading mollusca to uninfected skin by rubbing when you move. It’s not the most fashionable look, but it’s effective.
This is also the safest option for toddlers and young children, who may not remember that they shouldn’t touch the bumps and who may change clothes multiple times throughout the day. That way, you don’t need to worry about every individual clothing item, since clothing won’t come into contact with infected skin in the first place.
To do this, clean mollusca thoroughly, then clean your hands with soap and water for at least twenty seconds. Dry them with a towel, using a towel for uninfected skin first and a separate towel for mollusca. Wash your hands a second time. Next, dress each lesion with medical tape and bandaging. The safest option to avoid movement or rubbing is to apply medical tape over each growth first, then wrap affected areas with bandages to keep the tape secure throughout the day. Wash your hands after applying tape and after applying the bandages–it might feel excessive, but it’s the option with the lowest risk of autoinoculation.
You should reapply tape and bandages after showering and should make sure that bandages are completely secure before doing any sport. Swimmers should only swim if they have secure, watertight tape and bandages covering all lesions at all times.
If you’re a parent, you should warn your child’s daycare or school about dressings. If they’re too young to change the dressings on their own, meet with the daycare workers or school nurse to talk through how to change tape and bandages to avoid infection. Teenagers should be taught how to change their own dressings, and both teenagers and adults should have fresh tape and bandages on hand during the day just in case.
Don’t Pick, Rub, or Scratch
In case you haven’t caught on yet, picking, rubbing, or scratching molluscum bumps is pretty much a guaranteed way to spread the virus, either to others or to adjacent skin.
This can be hard, especially if the bumps are itchy. In young kids and toddlers, it’s also hard to keep them from picking or scratching the bumps, especially if they’re too little to reason with.
The simplest approach is to keep the bumps covered at all times. The dressing process can be a headache with toddlers, but it’s the most effective option. If there’s always a barrier, they physically can’t touch the bumps.
With toddlers and young children, in particular, make sure that the bumps are securely covered without opportunities to remove the coverings. Your best bet is to use tape first and then secure a bandage–that’s enough layers of effort that it will deter all but the most determined child.
It’s hardest to remember that you can’t touch the bumps when they’re itchy, especially for kids. Plus, skin irritation is an open invitation for widespread molluscum contagiosum infections.
As such, moisturizing is your other golden ticket to avoid spreading molluscum contagiosum–especially for those with eczema.
First, if you have eczema or skin prone to irritation, you should only use products designed for eczema and sensitive skin. That means no fragrance, no irritating additives, ingredients that don’t strip away your skin’s natural oils, a moisturizing agent, and an agent that helps rebuild your skin barrier, such as ceramides.
Second, if you have eczema, you have to make moisturizing part of your daily routine. That can mean twice a day if you have severe eczema.
Unfortunately, dry skin and eczema aren’t the same things. Eczema may not respond to the same lotions as regular dry skin, or it requires such copious amounts as to be unrealistic. Do a bit of trial and error and consult with your dermatologist to find the right moisturizing routine.
Don’t Share Personal Items
While direct skin-to-skin contact is the foremost concern in molluscum contagiosum, contact with infected objects is just as prevalent. Even if you keep your molluscum bumps covered at all times, you should not share personal items with others.
For example, you should not share clothing, towels, shoes, bath toys, or sports equipment. Anything that may come in contact with your skin is fair game.
This can be harder when it comes to shared athletic equipment, like sports mats. In those cases, you should keep the bumps securely covered at all times.
Sharing a bed can be tricky. Ideally, you should not share a bed with anyone–you can’t control what you touch when you’re unconscious, and bed linens count as a personal item in this case.
Don’t Stop Prevention Measures Until All Bumps are Gone
Last but not least, do not stop preventative measures until all of your mollusca bumps are completely clear.
Yes, this can be tiresome, especially because mollusca bumps can persist for so long. But remember, the more new bumps you acquire, the longer you have to deal with it. Plus, if your kids transmit it among themselves, you’ll have even more kids with molluscum contagiosum to wrangle.
Play it safe. Keep on taking all your preventative measures until your dermatologist gives you the green light to carry on your life as usual.
We know that molluscum contagiosum can be a real headache, especially for parents who are managing the infection in young children. The key is to have the right tools in your kit.