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Diseases and Conditions
Molluscum contagiosum
From MayoClinic.com
Special to CNN.com

Introduction

Molluscum contagiosum is a relatively common viral infection of the skin that most often affects children. The firm bumps (papules) are painless and disappear within a year without treatment. If the papules are scratched or injured, the infection can spread to surrounding skin.

Though common in children, it affects adults as well. In adults, molluscum contagiosum may appear on the genitals and is considered a sexually transmitted disease (STD) in this area. The disorder may be seen in adults with an altered immune system.

Molluscum contagiosum spreads through direct person-to-person contact and through contact with contaminated objects. Because it spreads easily, doctors often recommend medical treatment, especially for adults.

Signs and symptoms

Molluscum contagiosum results in raised, round, flesh-colored bumps (papules) on the skin. The papules are small — typically 2 to 5 millimeters in diameter — and characteristically have a small indentation or dot at their top. The bumps can become red and inflamed. You can easily remove the bumps by scratching or rubbing them, but this spreads the virus to adjacent skin.

In children, the papules typically appear on the face, neck, armpits, hands and arms. In adults, molluscum contagiosum may be a sexually transmitted disease (STD) and is usually seen on the genitals, lower abdomen, inner upper thighs and buttocks. The disorder doesn't lead to serious illness and isn't related to genital warts, which are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). However, adults with genital molluscum should be screened for other STDs.

Causes

Molluscum contagiosum results from an infection by the molluscum contagiosum virus — a member of the poxvirus family. This virus spreads easily through direct skin-to-skin contact and through contact with contaminated objects, such as toys, doorknobs or faucet handles. The virus also spreads through sexual contact with an affected partner. Scratching or rubbing the papules spreads the virus to nearby skin. Heat and moisture in the fold areas of skin, such as the armpits, may hasten the spread of the virus.

When to seek medical advice

If you suspect you or your child has molluscum contagiosum, consult your family doctor or a dermatologist. He or she can diagnose the infection by examining the characteristic papules. If there's any doubt, he or she may take skin scrapings from the infected area and view them under a microscope.

Treatment

For people with a normal immune system, molluscum contagiosum resolves without treatment within six to 18 months. It may take longer for children whose immune systems aren't fully developed.

Because molluscum spreads easily, doctors often recommend medical treatment, especially for adults. Treatment may include removal of the papules by:

  • Scraping or curettage
  • Surgical removal
  • Freezing (cryotherapy)
  • Laser therapy

Medications used to remove warts also may be helpful in removing the papules.

Although molluscum contagiosum typically doesn't cause itching, some people develop dermatitis or eczema around the papules. Treatment for itching caused by dermatitis may include over-the-counter 1 percent hydrocortisone creams or ointments, or prescription topical steroids. However, these medications should be applied only to the areas of dermatitis and not the molluscum papules.

The disorder may be progressive and more extensive for people with certain skin disorders such as atopic eczema or for those with weakened immune systems, such as those with AIDS. People with weakened immune systems should seek professional treatment for molluscum contagiosum.

Prevention

To help prevent the spread of the virus:

  • Avoid touching, rubbing or scratching the papules. Shaving over the infected areas also can spread the virus.
  • Don't let others use your clothing, towels, hairbrushes or other personal items. Refrain from borrowing these items from others as well.
  • Avoid sexual contact until the papules are treated and have completely resolved.

February 10, 2006

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