Molluscum - American Sexual Health Association


Molluscum contagiosum is a skin disease caused by the molluscum contagiosum virus (MCV). MCV usually causes one or more small lesions/bumps. Molluscum contagiosum is generally a benign infection and symptoms may self-resolve. Molluscum contagiosum was once a disease primarily of children, but it has evolved to become a sexually transmitted disease in adults. It is believed to be a member of the pox virus family.


How is molluscum transmitted?
Molluscum contagiosum virus (MCV) may be sexually transmitted by skin-to-skin contact (does not have to be mucous membranes) and/or lesions. Transmission through sexual contact is the most common form of transmission for adults.

MCV may be transmitted from inanimate objects such as towels and clothing that come in contact with the lesions. MCV transmission has been associated with swimming pools and sharing baths with an infected person.

MCV also may be transmitted by autoinoculation, such as touching a lesion and touching another part of the body. To stop from further spreading the infection, do not shave over or close to areas that are visibly infected.

What is the incubation period?
The incubation period averages 2 to 3 months and may range from 1 week to 6 months.

How long are you infectious?
This is not known for certain, but researchers assume that if the virus is present it may be transmitted.

What are the symptoms?
  • Lesions are usually present on the thighs, buttocks, groin and lower abdomen of adults, and may occasionally appear on the external genital and anal region.
  • Children typically develop lesions on the face, trunk, legs and arms.
  • The lesions may begin as small bumps which can develop over a period of several weeks into larger sores/bumps. The lesions can be flesh colored, gray-white, yellow or pink. They can cause itching or tenderness in the area, but in most cases the lesions cause few problems. Lesions can last from 2 weeks to 4 years—the average is 2 years.
  • People with AIDS or others with compromised immune systems may develop extensive outbreaks.

How is it diagnosed?
Diagnosis is usually made by the characteristic appearance of the lesion. MCV may be diagnosed by collecting a specimen from the lesion, placing it onto a slide and staining with a Gram stain which shows changes in infected cells. Diagnosis may be made by collecting a specimen from the lesion and viewing it under an electron microscope.

How is it treated?

  • Most symptoms are self-resolving, but generally lesions are removed. Removal of lesions reduces autoinoculation and transmission to others.
  • Lesions can be removed surgically and/or treated with a chemical agent such as podophyllin, cantharidin, phenol, silver nitrate, trichloracetic acid or iodine.
  • Cryotherapy is an alternative method of removal.
  • Lesions may recur, but it is not clear whether this is due to reinfection, exacerbation of subclinical infection, or reactivation of latent infection.

What does it mean for my health?
In people with HIV infection, molluscum contagiosum is often a progressive disease.

How can I reduce my risk?

  • Because transmission through sexual contact is the most common form of transmission for adults, preventing skin-to-skin contact with an infected partner will be most effective in preventing MCV.
  • Latex condoms or other moisture barriers for vaginal, oral, and anal sex may help to prevent such contact. Limitations of such barriers must be recognized as MCV does NOT require mucous membrane contact to be passed.
  • Using spermicides is not recommended as they can irritate the skin or vaginal tissue and, especially for women, cause abrasions (tiny openings in skin) that may make it easier to contract STDs/STIs.
  • Using condoms may protect the penis or vagina from infection, but do not protect from contact with other areas such as the scrotum or anal area.
  • Mutual monogamy (sex with only one uninfected partner)
  • If you do get molluscum contagiosum, avoid touching the lesion and then touching another part of the body without washing your hands to prevent any chance of spreading the infection.

Back to Top