Molluscum contagiosum is a common skin infection that is caused by a virus. The infection causes small, dimpled, skin-coloured bumps called papules to develop on the skin.
The infection is more common in warm, humid climates, especially when living conditions are crowded, but it can occur anywhere throughout the world. Children 1 to 10 years of age are more commonly affected. It is a mild skin infection and seldom serious, but can be more severe for people with a weak immune system.
Without treatment, molluscum contagiosum typically clears within a year. Treatment may be recommended, however, to prevent spreading the infection.
Molluscum contagiosum is a skin infection caused by a poxvirus. This virus is spread from person to person either by touching the affected skin area or by sexual contact when the genital area is affected. The virus can also temporarily survive on surfaces (e.g., towels, wash cloths, clothing, toys, door handles) and be spread to individuals that come into contact with these surfaces.
Once you have been infected with the virus and touch or scratch the affected area, you can spread it to other parts of your body by touching or scratching other areas of your body.
Symptoms and Complications
Molluscum can occur anywhere on the skin, except the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. It is most commonly found on the face, eyelids, neck, trunk, arms, and thighs. The lesions are usually pink or flesh-coloured raised bumps (papules) with a dip or pit in the centre. The lesions are usually small – about 1 mm to 5 mm in diameter.
Complications are rare with molluscum contagiosum. Generally, secondary bacterial infections caused by scratching are the most common complication. Up to 10% of people with molluscum will develop eczema around the lesions. Although most infections clear without scarring, a few people may be left with scars once the infection has cleared.
Making the Diagnosis
There is no blood test for molluscum contagiosum. Your doctor will examine the skin lesions and assess your symptoms to make an accurate diagnosis. If your doctor is not sure that you have molluscum contagiosum, they may remove some fluid from a few lesions and send it to a laboratory to be examined under a microscope.
Treatment and Prevention
One of the best ways to prevent infections, including molluscum contagiosum, is to wash hands frequently and properly. If you do become infected, keep in mind that it is a mild infection that is typically cleared by your body within several months without treatment. However, some lesions can remain for up to 2 to 3 years.
The following tips can help prevent spreading the infection to other parts of your body and to other people:
- Practice good hand hygiene and wash your hands regularly.
- Don’t pick or scratch the bumps. This not only prevents spreading the virus but also reduces the risk of developing a secondary infection.
- Whenever possible, keep the bumps covered. Cover the infected area with a bandage (preferably watertight) or clothing. When there is no risk of passing the infection to others, remove the bandages to allow your skin to breathe.
- If the infection is in the genital area, avoid sexual activities until you see your doctor.
- Do not share personal items (e.g., towels, clothing, and sports equipment).
Because this infection usually clears up on its own, your doctor may not recommend treatment beyond the strategies mentioned above to prevent its spread. Depending on your age and risk of spreading the infection, your doctor may discuss several treatment options with you. The options may include:
- freezing the growths (also called cryotherapy)
- removing fluid within the bumps (also called curettage)
- removing growths with laser treatment
- creams prescribed by your doctor to be applied to the infected area
- oral medications
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