Meet Molluscum Contagiosum

The long-lasting but generally harmless skin infection molluscum contagiosum pops up frequently in young children when the humidity rises

WRITTEN BY Shelley Hill Young


Molluscum contagiosum might sound like a spell out of Harry Potter, but it’s actually a highly contagious skin infection common in children ages one to 10. Caused by the poxvirus, the small bumps can be unsightly and seem a little scary, but there’s no call for emergency action. However, the condition requires attention, and it’ll take more than a magic wand to make the virus disappear. 

On infected children, parents might spy smooth, round, white or pink bumps that have a depression in the center. Also called water warts, these pocks can appear singularly or in clusters and are often found on warmer areas of the body, such as the backs of the knees or insides of the elbows. “The virus is typically picked up in damp environments like pools or gymnasiums, through contact with contaminated surfaces or shared clothing and towels,” says Dr. Todd Schlesinger, a Roper St. Francis Healthcare affiliated dermatologist.

The good news is that the lesions aren’t painful, though they might trigger an immune response that causes red, itchy dermatitis (aka eczema) to flare up on the surrounding skin. Just watch out: scratching can spread the virus to other parts of the body. “Wash your hands, don’t scratch or pick and keep the bumps covered,” advises Dr. Schlesinger. 

While molluscum contagiosum will resolve on its own over time, the papules often grow larger, can persist for two years or more and are quite contagious. The most effective way to banish the pesky virus is to seek help from a pediatrician or dermatologist. “Treatment is designed to prevent additional lesions, reduce scarring and avoid sharing the virus,” says Dr. Schlesinger. 

Cantharidin, which is extracted from a blister beetle, is one of the most effective solutions. The topical medication gets applied in the doctor’s office for a short time and then washed off. This “beetle juice” causes small blisters that eventually dry up and fall off. Molluscum contagiosum may also be treated by freezing, laser therapy or curettage, but dermatologists have long preferred cantharidin as a painless approach. “Any way you make a move to destroy molluscum works,” says Dr. Schlesinger, “but you want to do it in the gentlest way possible.”

Water Warts or What? How to distinguish molluscum contagiosum from other skin conditions common in children

Molluscum contagiosum
Cause: Poxvirus, often in summer
Appearance: Small, firm bumps that are pink or white with a center dimple
Contagious: Yes

Cause: Bacterial infection, often in summer
Appearance: Pustules and crusted, yellow sores usually on the face
Contagious: Yes

Keratosis pilaris
Cause: Buildup of keratin that results in clogged hair follicles, often in winter
Appearance: Small, scaly bumps scattered most frequently on the backs of the upper arms and thighs
Contagious: No

Cause: Bacterial or fungal infection, often from tight clothing
Appearance: Tiny, red or white bumps on skin covered by clothing, such as the buttocks or thighs
Contagious: No

Common warts
Cause: Human papillomavirus
Appearance: Round bumps often on hands/feet; similar to molluscum but with a rougher texture
Contagious: Yes; difficult to remove

New Research: Fatherly Advice

New research suggests that dads who abstain from alcohol before conception may reduce their babies’ risk of birth defects

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend that women avoid alcohol while trying to get pregnant. Now, experts are calling on dads-to-be to do the same. A recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics cites a link between paternal alcohol consumption and birth defects among newborns. Surveying more than 529,000 couples, researchers discovered that when a man imbibed at least once a week in the months leading up to conception, his baby’s risk of having a birth defect increased by 35 percent. The child’s chance of developing a cleft grew by 55 percent. Scientists believe that alcohol consumption may correlate with sperm abnormalities that could lead to congenital heart disease, limb deformities, digestive tract anomalies and clefts. Early evidence suggests that fathers can help protect their babies even prior to conception by abstaining from drinking. A three-month reprieve from alcohol may be all it takes for sperm to become healthy once again