Molluscum Contagiosum

  • Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

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Is molluscum contagiosum contagious?

With part of its name being contagiosum, you can be sure it is contagious. The virus is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact and by indirect contact (for example, towels touched by an infected person may allow the virus to pass from the towel to another person's skin.

What is the incubation period for molluscum contagiosum?

The average time from exposure to symptoms (incubation period) is about two to seven weeks and may be as long as six months in some individuals.

How long does the infection with molluscum contagiosum last? When does a person become noncontagious?

The skin lesions last about six to 12 months although some individuals have had lesions last up to four years. Once the lesions spontaneously resolve, the person is not contagious.

What causes molluscum contagiosum?

The cause is a virus, a member of the poxvirus family. The virus only survives in the skin, and when the lesions are gone, the person no longer is contagious.

What are risk factors for molluscum contagiosum?

The highest risk factor is when an uninfected person touches a skin lesion on an infected person's skin or contacts an item such as a towel that was recently used by an infected person. People with weakened immune systems are at risk for getting the infection and having it rapidly spread with larger lesions. Other people at high risk are wrestlers, swimmers, gymnasts, and people who use steam baths and saunas. It's also possible to transmit the infection sexually. It is theoretically possible to become in contact and be infected with the virus from a toilet seat, but this has not been documented.

What are molluscum contagiosum symptoms and signs?

The first signs and symptoms of molluscum contagiosum are small painless papules (raised bumps) on the skin. It often appears as a raised, a pearly pinkish nodule; some nodules contain a dimple in the center. Most lesions are small, about 2-5 mm in diameter. Inside the nodule, sometimes there is a cheesy whitish core. The lesions may become itchy, sore, and reddened if scratched. The lesions can appear anywhere on the body (face, mouth, penis, or vagina, for example). The skin lesions may go through three stages; the first is a small whitish and/or reddish bump on the skin. Over a few weeks, the bumps can enlarge to about 2-5 mm with a whitish pus head that develops into a small crater when it bursts (stage 2; patients are advised not to attempt "popping" these pus-containing bumps or pimples). Stage 3 is when the burst craters develop into reddish sores that can be infected with other organisms (secondary infections).

How do physicians diagnose molluscum contagiosum?

Presumptive diagnosis is based on the person's history and physical exam. A skin biopsy that shows the viral infection is a definitive diagnosis usually made by a pathologist. This definitive diagnosis is sometimes helpful to distinguish molluscum contagiosum from other skin problems like herpes, genital warts (HPV), hives, or folliculitis.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 5/15/2015
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