Molluscum contagiosum is a viral disease that affects the skin. It is most common among children, though it can affect people of all ages, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When it infects the genitals it is often mistaken for herpes, although the skin lesions are not painful—herpetic skin lesions typically hurt. Spread can most easily be prevented by avoiding contact with infected individuals (including the sharing of clothing and towels) and by following proper hand hygiene.
Molluscum contagiosum causes a characteristic progressing skin lesion. The infected area first shows symptoms in the form of a small reddish and raised patch of skin, also known as a papule. As the disease progresses, it forms a pinkish or flesh-colored nodule. The skin lesion that molluscum contagiosum causes often has a small dimple or pit in the center. The nodules can vary in size between the approximate size of a pinhead up to approximately the size of an eraser. The nodules generally are not painful, but can be itchy. Scratching can lead to irritation, inflammation and swelling.
Infection Sites and Spread
Molluscum contagiosum can affect the skin on any part of the body, though it rarely affects the palms or the soles of the feet (because the skin there is thicker). Typically, this virus affects the face, neck and abdomen, as well as the limbs (arms and legs). Molluscum contagiosum can appear as a single lesion or as a group of small papules. Molluscum contagiosum can also affect the genitals and be spread as a result of sexual contact with an infected person. The virus spreads as a result of direct skin-to-skin contact, so it typically occurs in unclothed areas. The disease can also spread from using contaminated clothing and towels, as well as from swimming in an infected swimming pool.
Because molluscum contagiosum is caused by members of the Poxviridae family of viruses, it can pose a more serious risk to people with suppressed immune systems. These immunocompromised individuals include people with AIDS, people who have recently undergone chemotherapy or patients who have received an organ transplant. In this case, the disease progresses more rapidly. Molluscum contagiosum typically goes away on its own after six to 18 months in healthy individuals, but the disease may persist for years in the immunocompromised.