Molluscum contagiosum


Molluscum contagiosum


Molluscum contagiosum (MC) is a viral infection that affects the skin. It most commonly affects children, although it can occur at any age.

Usually, the only symptom of MC is a number of small, firm, raised papules (spots) that develop on the skin. They are not painful, but can be itchy.

Although the spots can look unpleasant, MC is generally a harmless condition that will normally resolve in a few months without any specific treatment.

When to seek medical advice

Visit your GP if you think you or your child may have MC. Your GP will examine your skin (or your child's) and ask about any other symptoms.

The spots of MC are usually easy to recognise, so your GP should be able to diagnose the condition without the need for further tests.

Molluscum contagiosum is a viral infection that causes raised spots to develop on the skin

What causes MC?

MC is caused by a virus known as the molluscum contagiosum virus (MCV).

This virus can be spread through:

close direct contact – such as touching the skin of an infected person

touching contaminated objects – such as towels, flannels, toys and clothes

sexual contact – this includes intimate physical contact as well as sexual intercourse

If you become infected by the virus and spots appear on your skin, the virus can also spread to other areas.

It is not known exactly how long someone with MC is contagious for, but it is thought the contagious period may last up until the last spot has completely healed.

Who is affected

MC can affect anyone at any age, but the condition is most common in young children – particularly those aged between one and five.

It is also more common in people with a weakened immune system – either due to a condition such as HIV or a treatment such aschemotherapy.

MC can affect a person on more than one occasion, but this is uncommon.

How MC is treated

In people who are otherwise healthy, individual spots usually clear up within two months. However, it is common for the condition to spread around the body, so it can take up to 18 months or more for the condition to resolve completely.

Routine treatment for MC, particularly in children, is generally not recommended because:

the infection usually clears up on its own

the infection does not normally cause any symptoms other than the spots

the infection does not usually interfere with everyday activities, such as going to work, swimming or playing sports 

treatments can be painful and may cause scarring or damage to the surrounding skin

Treatment is usually only recommended for older children and adults when the spots are particularly unsightly and affect quality of life, or for people with weakened immune systems.

In such cases, treatments that may be offered include liquids, gels or creams that are applied directly to the skin, or minor procedures such as cryotherapy (where the spots are removed by freezing them).

In rare cases, the spots can become infected with bacteria, and occasionally the condition can lead to an eye infection, such asconjunctivitis. These complications may need additional treatment with antibiotics to clear the infection.

Preventing MC

Although MC is infectious, the chance of passing it on to others during normal activities is small.

It is therefore not necessary to stay away from work, school or nursery, or to stop doing activities such as swimming if you have MC.

However, you should take some steps to avoid spreading the virus to other people. You should:

avoid squeezing or scratching the spots – as well as increasing the risk of the infection spreading, this can cause pain, bleeding and can lead to scarring

keep affected areas of skin covered with clothing whenever possible – a waterproof bandage can be put over the area if you go swimming

avoid sharing towels, flannels and clothing

avoid sharing baths 

Using a condom while having sex can reduce the risk of passing on MC during sexual contact, although this cannot prevent the spread of the virus completely, because it can be passed to nearby areas of skin that are not covered by a condom.


Symptoms of molluscum contagiosum 

The main symptom of molluscum contagiosum (MC) is the development of a number of small spots on the skin.

The spots are usually firm and dome-shaped, with a small dimple in the middle. They are usually less than 5mm (0.5cm) across, but can sometimes be bigger.

They are typically pink or red, although they may have a tiny white or yellow head in the centre. If this head ruptures (splits), a thick yellowy-white substance will be released, which is highly infectious.

It's important not to squeeze the spots, as this will increase the risk of the infection spreading to other parts of the body.

The spots associated with MC are usually painless, although they can sometimes be itchy and some people develop areas of red, dry and cracked skin around them.

Most people will have between 20 and 30 spots, although people with a weakened immune system often have more. The spots may develop in small clusters and can be spread across different parts of the body.

Common parts of the body affected by MC include the:



trunk (torso)


In a few cases, particularly when it is spread during sexual contact, spots can develop on the genitals and nearby skin.

How the condition progresses

In many cases, the individual spots will start to crust over and heal within two months. Some people may experience mild swelling and redness around each spot as it begins to heal.

The spots do not usually leave scars, but they may leave a small area of lighter skin or a tiny pitted mark.

As the virus that causes MC can spread to other parts of the body, new spots may develop as the old ones are healing. This can result in an episode of MC lasting for quite a long time.

Most cases clear up within around 6-18 months, but the condition can, occasionally, persist for several years.

When to seek medical advice

Visit your GP if you think you or your child may have MC. Your GP will examine your skin (or your child's) and ask about any other symptoms.

The spots of MC are usually easy to recognise, so your GP should be able to diagnose the condition without the need for further tests.

Your GP can advise you about whether any treatment is appropriate, and what steps you can take to reduce the risk of the infection spreading to other people.


Diagnosing molluscum contagiosum 

The spots caused by molluscum contagiosum (MC) are usually easy to recognise.

Your GP should be able to diagnose the condition without carrying out further tests.

Confirming a diagnosis

If your GP thinks that the infection may be caused by something other than MC, they may want to carry out some tests.

For example, they may take a sample from one of the spots to test it for the molluscum contagiosum virus (MCV). This is known as a skinbiopsy.

If you have spots on your genitals, your GP may refer you to a genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic to be tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

If you prefer, you can go to an STI clinic directly. Consultation is confidential and free.

Referral to a specialist

Your GP may refer you to a specialist if:

you have HIV and your symptoms are severe

you have a weakened immune system for another reason – such as receiving chemotherapy

you have spots on your eyelids or near your eye, and/or your eye is red or painful

Treating molluscum contagiosum 

Treatment for molluscum contagiosum (MC) is not routinely recommended because most cases clear up in around 6 to 18 months without the need for treatment.

If left alone, MC doesn't tend to result in scarring or cause any symptoms other than spots.

Many of the treatments available for MC can be painful and may be upsetting for young children, and some may increase the chances of permanent scarring.

Treatment is usually only recommended for adults and older children who have spots that are particularly unsightly and are affecting their quality of life.

Treatment is also recommended for people with weakened immune systems, as the condition can take several years to clear in these cases. 

Topical treatments

There are a number of topical treatments (creams, lotions and ointments) that can be used to treat MC, although there's not enough evidence to know if any particular treatment is more effective than the others.

Potassium hydroxide

Potassium hydroxide is a medication available in liquid form that can improve MC by breaking down the skin cells infected by the virus, allowing the immune system to tackle it.

The liquid is applied twice a day on each spot. The spots should eventually become inflamed, before healing and disappearing within the next few weeks.

You should stop using the medication once the spots have started to become inflamed, or after 14 days if the medication doesn't seem to be working.

Side effects of potassium hydroxide can include redness and a slight burning or itching sensation, which usually only lasts for a few minutes after the medication is applied.


Podophyllotoxin comes in liquid form and poisons the cells of the spots. A special application stick is used to draw up the correct dosage of liquid, which is then dripped onto each spot. You may experience some mild irritation.

The treatment will need to be applied for a few days, followed by a few days without treatment. This is referred to as a treatment cycle.


Imiquimod is a cream that can be used to treat larger spots or large clusters of spots. It works by stimulating your immune system into attacking the spots. You apply the cream to the spots, then wash it off after 6-10 hours. This should be done three times a week.

It may take several weeks of treatment before you notice an improvement. Common side effects of imiquimod include:

hard and flaky skin

redness and swelling of the skin

a burning or itching sensation after applying the cream


These side effects are usually mild and should pass within two weeks of stopping treatment.

Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is usually available in cream or gel form. It's applied to the spots once or twice a day, after washing and drying the affected area. Use benzoyl peroxide sparingly, because too much can harm your skin.

Benzoyl peroxide makes your skin more sensitive to sunlight, so either avoid excessive exposure to sunlight and ultra-violet (UV) light, or wear sun cream. Avoid getting the medication on hair and clothes, as it can bleach them. Wash your hands thoroughly after you finish applying the medication.

Common side effects of benzoyl peroxide include:

dry and red skin

a burning, itching or stinging sensation

some peeling of the skin

These side effects are usually mild and should resolve after the treatment has finished.


Tretinoin is available as a liquid that is applied once or twice a day to individual spots. As with benzoyl peroxide, tretinoin can make your skin sensitive to sunlight and UV light.

Tretinoin is not suitable for use during pregnancy because it can cause birth defects. It's important to use a reliable method of contraceptionwhile taking tretinoin if you are a sexually active woman.

The most common side effects of tretinoin are mild irritation and stinging of the skin. It may take several months before you notice an improvement in your symptoms.

Other treatments

There are a number of minor procedures that can help remove or destroy MC spots.

They can be painful, so are not generally suitable for children, and they must always be carried out by a suitably qualified healthcare professional.


Cryotherapy involves freezing the spots with liquid nitrogen to remove them. Each spot is frozen for 5-10 seconds, so that a layer of ice forms over the spot and surrounding skin.

You may need several sessions of cryotherapy before each spot clears completely. You will need to wait two to three weeks between each treatment session.


Diathermy uses heat to remove the spots. The area being treated is numbed with a local anaesthetic and a heated electrical device is used to burn off the spots.


Curettage removes spots by scraping them off with a thin, metal, spoon-like instrument called a curette. As with diathermy, you may have a local anaesthetic before having this type of treatment.

Pulsed-dye lasers

Pulsed-dye laser treatment is a relatively new type of treatment for MC. It uses a powerful beam of light to destroy the cells that make up each spot. You may experience some skin discolouration and discomfort in the treated areas, but this should improve within a few weeks. The procedure may need to be repeated several times to clear all of your spots.

Pulsed-dye laser treatment uses expensive equipment and its availability on the  is limited. Therefore, you will probably have to pay privately for the treatment, which can be expensive.

Don't squeeze the spots

Squeezing or scratching molluscum contagiosum spots is not recommended because it can cause pain and bleeding and can increase the chances of scarring. It also increases the risk of spreading the infection.

Complications of molluscum contagiosum 

Molluscum contagiosum (MC) usually clears up on its own eventually without the need for treatment, and it rarely causes any other problems.

However, complications can occasionally occur. Some of the main complications associated with MC are outlined below.

Bacterial infection

In some cases, the spots of MC can become infected with bacteria. This is known as a secondary bacterial infection and it's thought to be more likely if you have atopic eczema (a skin condition caused by an allergy) or a weakened immune system.

Signs of a secondary bacterial infection can include redness, swelling and pain in the skin and underlying tissue.

See your GP if you think your or your child’s spots have become infected. They will usually prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection.


After MC has healed and cleared, small patches of paler skin or tiny indented scars may be left behind. This is more likely to happen if the spots became infected or if you have had treatment for them.

Scarring is most common in areas of skin where there is more fatty tissue, such as your thighs.

Eye problems

In rare cases, if you or your child has MC around the eyes, a secondary eye infection may develop, such as conjunctivitis or keratitis (see below).

Conjunctivitis affects the thin layer of skin inside the eyelids called the conjunctiva. It causes your eyes to become red, swollen and watery. You may also have a sticky coating on your eyelids and eyelashes.

Keratitis is similar to conjunctivitis, but it affects your cornea (the transparent layer of cells that cover the surface of your eye). If you have keratitis, your eyes may be painful and sensitive to light, and you may have blurred vision.

See your GP if you or your child have any problems with your eyes. If necessary, they will refer you to a specialist in diagnosing and treating eye conditions, called an ophthalmologist, who may prescribe eye drops to reduce your symptoms and treat the infection.