Despite sounding like a Harry Potter spell, Molluscum Contagiosum is neither as well-known nor as whimsical as its name may suggest.
Most people know about high-profile sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, HIV/AIDS and Human Papilloma Virus, but have never heard of Molluscum.
In fact, doctors primarily diagnose Molluscum in children under 10. Children run around touching anything they can get their hands on — toys, dirt, towels, each other and themselves, and consequently develop Molluscum.
But children grow up, become sexually active, and begin touching genitals instead, hence the evolution of Molluscum from a skin infection shared between children to an STI passed along between adults.
Sharing the ‘scum
The most common route for sharing Molluscum between adults is through skin-to-skin sexual contact. Though condoms are only moderately effective at preventing Molluscum due to the infection’s ability to circulate to non-genital areas, they still provide excellent protection against this and other STIs. If one shaves or pops the Molluscum bumps, the material inside may be transferred to another part of the body, spreading infection to other regions on the skin in a process called “autoinoculation.”
Molluscum may also be passed along via inanimate objects such as towels or clothing infected persons have handled, allowing the virus to be shared in non-sexual contexts. Unlike Herpes Simplex Virus, which has an asymptomatic shedding period allowing the virus to be shared even without physical symptoms, Molluscum cannot be passed along once the lesions disappear. Though the symptoms of Molluscum may be unsightly or uncomfortable, symptoms are generally mild and easy to resolve.
Folks often worry about confusing Molluscum with pimples or ingrown hairs, but the growths associated with the virus look somewhat different from the average pimple. Molluscum bumps are small, raised, and usually white or flesh-colored with a dimple in the middle as opposed to the rounded top of a pimple or ingrown hair. Often the growths are pearly, smooth and firm, ranging in size from the size of a pinhead to a pencil eraser.
Usually Molluscum is painless, but the lesions may become itchy, sore, red or swollen. If you spots growths matching this description, seek treatment from a healthcare provider or University Health Services clinician right away to avoid passing the infection along to others.
Since Molluscum is a virus, no cure exists. Luckily, bodies with a strong immune system can usually resolve the infection themselves over the course of nine months to two years. But immunocompromised individuals, such as those who are HIV positive, are more at risk for such infections and may require additional treatments.
For those uncomfortable with the appearance of Molluscum, several treatment options are available. Do not attempt to pop, scratch or shave the lesions off. This will likely result in the infection transferring to other parts of the body.
The lesions may be physically removed by freezing with liquid nitrogen, scraping the tissue away or utilizing laser therapy. These treatments are efficient, but may result in temporary discomfort or scarring following the procedure. Growths may also be removed more gradually by using oral therapy, which is less painful and lowers risk of scarring. Finally, topical therapy might be prescribed to treat the bumps individually using anti-tumor medications or other active ingredients.
According to University Health Services, Molluscum is one of the most common STIs on the University of Wisconsin’s campus and should not be dismissed. Still, it is important to remember that STIs do not measure morality and should be destigmatized as much as possible to create less shame around infections as a result of sexual contact.