Molluscum contagiosum describes a viral skin infection that a person may acquire from direct skin-to-skin contact. It typically presents as small skin lesions with a pearly appearance, which may become itchy, sore, and swollen.

Molluscum contagiosum is a common viral skin infection caused by a poxvirus known as the molluscum contagiosum virus (MCV). The infection results in small, raised bumps called mollusca that may appear anywhere on the skin. Molluscum contagiosum is painless but can be itchy, especially if the person also has eczema.

While molluscum contagiosum is usually harmless, as the name implies, it is a highly contagious infection. It is most common in children and young adults, and typically transmits through direct skin-to-skin contact or indirect contact through towels or other items.

This article discusses whether molluscum contagiosum can cause itching, other possible symptoms, and treatment options.

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Molluscum contagiosum, also known as water warts, is often painless and may not cause any symptoms. However, in some cases, the lesions may become itchy, sore, or painful.

Evidence suggests that mollusca are more likely to become itchy if a person has eczema. This term describes a common inflammatory skin condition that may result in patches of itchy skin.

Other evidence suggests mollusca themselves usually do not itch. Instead, itching is more likely to occur from mollusca causing a local flare-up of pre-existing eczema.

Molluscum contagiosum has an incubation period that ranges from 2 weeks to 6 months. The bumps typically appear as clusters of small round papules. These lesions may range in size from 1–6 millimeters and are usually white, pink, or flesh-colored with a dimple or pit in the center.

Mollusca can appear anywhere on the skin but is rare on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet. Mollusca usually present on the following areas:

  • torso
  • armpits
  • knees, especially the back part
  • arms, especially in the crooks
  • groin area

Other common sites include:

  • neck
  • sides of chest
  • buttocks
  • face

The body usually clears the infection within 6–9 months. However, in some cases, it may take up to 4 years for the body to clear all the spots.

When the bumps go away, they may leave white or pink to purple spots. These tend to fade away over time and do not leave a mark. However, aggressive treatment and frequent scratching may leave a pitted scar, similar to a chickenpox scar.

Molluscum contagiosum is self-limited and goes away on its own in healthy individuals. Many people still seek treatment for other reasons, including:

  • appearance
  • avoiding social stigma
  • concerns for transmission
  • underlying atopic disease

Doctors may recommend treatment for people with the following:

Treatment options for molluscum contagiosum typically involve physical removal of mollusca, topical medications, and systemic treatment.

Physical removal may include cryotherapy, which involves freezing the spots with liquid nitrogen. A healthcare professional may surgically remove them using techniques such as curettage or pulsed dye lasers.

Topical treatments for mollusca may include:

Oral options, such as cimetidine or cidofovir, may also be available. In people living with HIV or AIDS, antiretroviral therapy is often an effective option for managing molluscum contagiosum.

To help prevent the transmission of MCV, health experts recommend:

  • washing hands regularly
  • not scratching or picking at molluscum lesions
  • covering lesions with clothing or bandages, especially if participating in contact sports or when swimming
  • not sharing towels, clothing, or other personal items
  • avoiding sexual activities if lesions are near the genitals

Molluscum contagiosum may not require treatment. However, they may cause discomfort and itching, particularly in individuals with eczema. In such cases, a person may wish to contact a doctor.

However, as the infection may persist in an individual with a compromised immune system, it is advisable for them to contact a doctor and receive treatment to successfully clear the infection.

Picking or scratching the lesions may result in infections in the surrounding skin. A doctor will be able to prescribe medications, such as antibiotics, to treat the skin infection. However, it is important to note that the antibiotics will not treat the mollusca themselves, as antibiotics do not work against viruses, such as MCV.

Molluscum contagiosum is a viral infection that may cause bumps on the skin. While these lesions are generally painless, they can sometimes become itchy or swollen.

These bumps usually go away without treatment. However, it may be necessary for individuals with weakened immune systems to seek medical treatment. Treatment options include topical creams and physical removal. To help prevent infection, it is advisable for people to regularly wash their hands and cover the papules with clothing or bandages.