Molluscum contagiosum. It sounds like a spell straight out of Harry Potter. And this common childhood rash can seem like a curse to many children and their parents.
Who it affects
Although adults and teenagers can develop spots of molluscum, it is most common in children 1-10 years old. Like many rashes in young children, molluscum is caused by a virus — fortunately one that only infects the skin. Unfortunately, as the name suggests, it is quite easily spread from person to person, especially children who have eczema.
Contracting molluscum contagiosum
Swimming pools and water parks are often the place where a child picks up the infection. Many families remember a trip to one of those places about three months before the rash begins.
It’s a bit controversial whether kids with molluscum should still go swimming if they have the rash. Many doctors believe that the rash is so common that it’s already in most swimming pools anyway. Prevention is still important: this includes good hand-washing, not sharing towels, and being careful during sports activities where there is skin to skin contact.
How to spot and diagnoses molluscum
Molluscum is usually easy to spot and diagnose just by looking at the skin. The smooth, skin colored, dimpled bumps can appear anywhere on the skin, but most often are seen on the arms, legs, chest, and groin.
Most kids get about 10-20 bumps that crop up in waves. The virus is smart, it often causes some red itchiness that make kids more likely to scratch and spread the infection. The most frustrating part about molluscum is that, on average, it takes 6-12 months to fight off the virus completely — even longer if a child has a weaker immune system.
How to treat molluscum
Since molluscum usually doesn’t scar and heals on its own, avoid aggressive treatment.
As the appearance of the molluscum can be distressing for children and parents, there are many treatments out there. Painless ones are the best place to start. There are some effective home remedies, such as applying apple cider vinegar or tea tree oil each night to all the spots until it causes mild irritation.
In some places, cantharidin (blister beetle juice) is a popular option. It causes small, painless blisters that take off the viral spot after several hours. This is getting harder to come by though due to rules on compounding medicines.
Freezing with liquid nitrogen can be effective, but this is more painful and usually only older individuals can tolerate it.
With that said, there is no “magic” treatment for molluscum except time.
Read more: If you are interested in reading more about molluscum, the Society of Pediatric Dermatology has an excellent handout and the American Academy of Dermatology delves further into the topic.
Keith Morley, MD, is the director of pediatric dermatology at the University of Vermont Medical Center and assistant professor at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM.