Clinical Guide > Comorbidities and Complications > Molluscum Contagiosum

Molluscum Contagiosum

January 2011

Chapter Contents


Molluscum contagiosum is a viral infection of human epidermal keratinocytes, caused by a double-stranded DNA virus of the Poxviridae family. Molluscum appears as papules or nodules and sometimes is called "molluscum warts." It is seen most frequently in HIV-uninfected children (up to 5% of children in the United States), in sexually active young adults, and in immunocompromised persons. It occurs in 5-18% of HIV-infected persons. Molluscum is benign but may cause extensive and cosmetically bothersome lesions, particularly in persons with advanced HIV infection.

Transmission occurs by person-to-person skin-to-skin contact (e.g., sexual activity, contact sports [especially wrestling], or simply touching) or via fomites (towels, bedclothes, clothing [including underwear], soft toys, shaving utensils, electrolysis equipment, tattooing tools, and sponges). The virus may be spread to other areas via self-inoculation (e.g., scratching, shaving, or touching a lesion).

In immunocompetent persons, the infection usually resolves spontaneously after 6-12 months, though genital lesions may remain longer. In HIV-infected persons, the lesions may be more extensive and persistent. There is a strong correlation between the degree of immunosuppression and the risk of molluscum infection, the number of lesions, and the ability of lesions to resist treatment.

S: Subjective

Patients complain of new papules on the trunk, axillae, antecubital and popliteal fossae, face, or genital/crural area. Papules of molluscum contagiosum may cause no symptoms but also can be intensely pruritic or tender to the touch. Ask patients whether others in the home (especially children and adolescents) or their sex partners have similar papules. Genital lesions are transmitted sexually; patients may recall seeing such lesions on the genitals of a previous partner.

Ask about fever or other systemic symptoms to evaluate for other causes of the papules.

O: Objective

Perform a thorough evaluation of the skin, genitals, and mouth. Molluscum commonly presents as multiple grouped lesions. The lesions are white, pink, or flesh colored; shiny, smooth surfaced, firm, pearly, and spherical (dome-shaped) papules (2-5 mm) or nodules (6-10 mm), with umbilicated, or dimpled, centers. Patients with HIV infection may develop giant lesions (>1 cm) or clusters of hundreds of small lesions. Occasionally, molluscum will have a polyp-like appearance. Lesions are usually found on the head, face, or neck or in the genital area, but may affect every part of the body except the palms and soles. Molluscum may occur inside the mouth, vagina, and rectum, and around the eyes. Lesions on the eyelids can cause conjunctivitis.

A: Assessment

A partial differential diagnosis includes the following:

P: Plan

Diagnostic Evaluation

The diagnosis of molluscum usually is based on the characteristic appearance of the lesions. Perform histologic or other laboratory testing to confirm the diagnosis or to exclude other infections or malignancies. Special staining will show keratinocytes containing eosinophilic cytoplasmic inclusion bodies. Electron microscopy will show poxvirus particles.


Because molluscum does not cause illness and rarely causes symptoms, the treatment usually is undertaken primarily for cosmetic purposes. For individuals with large or extensive lesions, molluscum may be disfiguring or stigmatizing, and treatment may be important for their well being. Treatment (particularly of genital lesions) can be considered to prevent transmission to others.

In HIV-infected patients, molluscum is difficult to eradicate and lesions often recur, particularly if immune suppression persists. Effective antiretroviral therapy may achieve resolution of lesions or significant improvement in the extent or appearance of molluscum.

Lesions that remain after weeks of antiretroviral therapy should be treated to prevent further spread. Refer complex cases to a dermatologist.

Choice of treatment modality is based on age, likelihood of compliance, number and size of lesions, and potential adverse effects of treatment. Therapeutic options include the following:

Patient Education