Molluscum contagiosum is a common viral skin infection that causes small, painless bumps called Mollusca to form on the skin. The Mollusca can appear anywhere on the body but is most commonly found on the face, neck, armpits, arms, hands, and genital region. Molluscum contagiosum is contagious and spreads through direct skin-to-skin contact, as well as through contaminated objects like towels or toys. While not serious, molluscum contagiosum is highly contagious so it’s important to recognize the symptoms early. Understanding the stages of molluscum contagiosum will help identify the infection before it spreads.
Stage 1: Incubation
After infection with the Molluscum contagiosum virus, it takes between 2 to 7 weeks for symptoms to first appear. This is known as the incubation period, where the virus is reproducing and spreading within the skin before any visible signs are apparent. During this stage, individuals are contagious even though no mollusca are present yet.
Stage 2: Appearance of Papules
The next stage is when the characteristic mollusca or papules of molluscum contagiosum begin to emerge on the skin. These will start as small, flesh-colored, or whitish bumps ranging from 1 to 5 millimeters across. The papules have a dome-shaped, rounded appearance and a smooth texture. They may be scattered singly or clustered together in groups or rows. The papules are generally painless unless irritated. This stage marks the beginning of visible symptoms that can be diagnosed as molluscum contagiosum.
Common areas for molluscum contagiosum papules:
Face, especially around the mouth and eyes
- Arms, hands, fingers
- Genitals and inner thighs
- Lower abdomen
Stage 3: Proliferation and Spread
In stage 3, the existing mollusca will enlarge and increase in number as the virus spreads across the skin surface. The papules can range in size from 1 to 5 millimeters across, with some growing to up to 1 centimeter. The dome-shaped bumps may develop an indented center and take on a white, yellowish, or skin-toned color. As they proliferate, the papules may merge into fleshy plaques.
Molluscum contagiosum spreads through direct contact, so new papules will emerge around the original sites. Scratching or shaving can also spread viral particles to new areas. The infection is highly contagious during this stage and can be transmitted through sexual contact or sharing of towels and clothes.
Ways molluscum contagiosum spreads:
- Direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected person
- Contact with contaminated objects – towels, toys, clothes
- Shaving or waxing over bumps
- Scratching or picking at bumps
- Sexual contact with an infected partner
Stage 4: Maturation
In the maturation stage, the larger papules develop a white or yellowish color and a central depression or “umbilication”. The Mollusca may take on a wart-like or mollusk-shell-shaped appearance. The central dimple results from viral material building up under pressure. Maturation indicates that molluscum bumps are full of viral particles and highly contagious.
The Mollusca may also become inflamed and red around the base as the body’s immune system attempts to fight off the virus. Blisters or crusting around the bumps can occur. While unsightly, molluscum papules at this stage are still generally not painful.
Stage 5: Resolution
The final stage is resolution, where the infection starts to clear as the immune system overcomes the virus. The Mollusca begin to flatten out and shrink in size over weeks to months. The papules eventually disappear fully, leaving no scarring.
In healthy individuals, molluscum contagiosum resolves spontaneously within 6 to 12 months. However, some people may carry the inactive infection for years. The virus can also reactivate later leading to recurrent molluscum contagiosum outbreaks.
Treating Molluscum Contagiosum
While molluscum contagiosum often goes away on its own, treatment can quicken recovery and prevent spreading. Options include:
- Medicated creams – apply topical retinoids or imiquimod to bumps
- Cryotherapy – freeze off mollusca with liquid nitrogen
- Curettage – scrape away bumps with a special instrument
- Laser therapy – destroy lesions with a focused beam of light
- Medication – take prescription antiviral pills to boost immune response
The key is not to scratch, pick, pop, or shave over bumps which can worsen the infection. Keeping the skin clean and covered can also limit transmission risk. Once the Mollusca are gone, the person is no longer contagious.
Recognizing Molluscum Contagiosum Stages with Pictures
Detecting molluscum contagiosum early is important to prevent spreading and treat promptly. The pictures below illustrate the distinct stages and symptom progression:
(Incubation) – No visible bumps yet:
(Initial Papules) – Small raised bumps emerge:
(Proliferation) – Bumps spread and multiply:
(Maturation) – Enlarged bumps with central dimples:
(Resolution) – Bumps flatten out and disappear:
By recognizing the distinct stages of molluscum contagiosum, prompt identification and treatment can occur before extensive spread. Seeing a doctor and avoiding skin-to-skin contact at the first sign of papules is key. With a careful hygiene routine and monitoring for recurrence, molluscum contagiosum can usually be managed effectively.