[Editor’s note: This article was originally hosted on MyFamilyDoctorMag.com, our sister site.
It’s now featured here as part of our new general-health section.]

Molluscum contagiosum
by Francesca J. Fusco, M.D.

Q. What is molluscum, and how do you treat it?
Hazel, New Jersey

A. It invades your skin. … It can spread all over your body—even to your friends! … And it’s downright, well, harmless, actually.

Description

Molluscum contagiosum is caused by a virus in the poxvirus family. (Smallpox is a cousin, but chickenpox, believe it or not, is in the herpesvirus family.) It’s characterized by solitary or multiple flesh-colored, dome-shaped bumps, approximately the size of a pimple. The center of a molluscum shows a tiny dimple—a feature that can help to distinguish it from other bumps, such as pimples and warts. They can be found anywhere on the body but are most common on the face, arms and legs.

As the name molluscum contagiosum suggests, it is highly contagious and spreads easily—especially among children. It can also be sexually transmitted. After infection, bumps may not show up for an estimated two weeks to six months.

Silver and Internet Treatments

One of the topical treatments your health-care provider may try is silver nitrate, a chemical that basically burns the bumps off. Some companies sell products on the Internet that they say contain “silver” or other ingredients that they claim treat the virus. Buyer beware. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that products sold on the Internet may not only be ineffective; they could be dangerous.

Treatment

If you suspect that you might have contracted molluscum contagiosum, don’t panic. The virus only infects the outer layer of your skin and doesn’t cause the rest of you to get sick. But you should see your dermatologist to make sure it is, in fact, molluscum contagiosum.

To prevent the spread of the bumps—either on your own body or onto someone else’s—keep them covered with adhesive bandages, and don’t scratch.

The next thing to do is up to you. You can let the virus go away on its own. (This usually takes six to 12 months but can take up to four years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) Or you can have the bumps removed. This eliminates the source of the infection— the viral particles under the dimples. Personally, I recommend removal—and the sooner the better, to stop the bumps before they spread further.

Your health-care provider can cut (my preference), burn or freeze the bumps off, apply a topical agent to make the bumps self-destruct, or prescribe something that you can apply at home. Bear in mind, however, that it can take several days or even weeks for topical treatments to yield results, and when dealing with a condition as contagious as molluscum contagiosum, time may be of the essence.


FRANCESCA J. FUSCO, M.D.,
has been practicing dermatology in New York since 1989. She is also an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

You may also like:

 

Photo courtesy Francesca J. Fusco, M.D.

Last updated and/or approved: January 2012. Original article appeared in fall 2006 former print magazine. Bio current as of that issue. This general health-care information is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.

(Subscribe to updates below.)