Eczema is a condition that can bring on itching, dryness, scaly patches, and rashes. It’s not contagious. But germs can get into your body through cracks in your skin, raising your chances for viral, bacterial, and fungal skin infections.
One common viral infection that people with eczema are more likely to get, usually in childhood, is molluscum contagiosum. This is a contagious skin problem that causes small bumps. The bumps can itch, which could trick you into thinking it’s only eczema. What’s more, rubbing or scratching can make either condition worse.
Since they can be hard to tell apart, here’s a closer look at the differences between molluscum contagiosum and eczema.
How Are the Causes Different?
Experts aren’t sure exactly what causes eczema, but they think your genes and certain triggers in your environment play a role. Your body’s defenses (immune system) overreact to a trigger -- like irritants, allergens, and stress -- by making too much inflammation, which brings on the skin symptoms.
A contagious poxvirus causes molluscum contagiosum. The infection spreads through:
- Making skin-to-skin contact with an infected person who has molluscum bumps.
- Touching a personal item that an infected person used, like an unwashed towel or yoga mat.
- Sharing their unwashed clothes or sports gear.
Adults can get molluscum contagiosum, but it’s most common in children who are 1 to 10 years old.
How Are the Symptoms Different?
Bumps are the main sign of molluscum contagiosum, but they’re just one possible symptom of eczema.
Eczema can also bring on signs like:
Babies and young children (who are at higher risk for molluscum contagiosum) usually get eczema symptoms on the face, the outside of elbows, and on knees. Older kids and adults tend to get it on the hands and feet, the arms, the backs of the knees, and in the folds of elbows. The condition can show up on different body parts as you get older.
Molluscum contagiosum usually brings on small, firm bumps. If you’re living with eczema, the bumps tend to show up on dry skin that’s affected by eczema. Molluscum bumps can irritate skin, too, so you may see more signs of eczema right around the bumps themselves.
In general, molluscum bumps can show up anywhere on your skin, but children usually get them on their:
- Knees (especially on the backs of them)
- Arms (especially in the crooks of them)
The bumps rarely show up on the palms of hands or the soles of feet. They can appear on the inside of eyelids, though.
At first molluscum bumps may look pink, flesh-colored, or white. As they get bigger, they start to look dome-shaped with a pin-like dimple in the middle. Once they turn red and look like pimples, it means your immune system is fighting off the virus and the bumps will go away soon.
The bumps are often painless. But if you rub, scratch, or pick at them, you could infect the bumps with bacteria on your hands and nails, and that could make them hurt. Habits like these can also spread molluscum contagiosum to other parts of your body.
What if You Have Eczema With Molluscum Contagiosum?
Talk to your dermatologist. Some people don’t need treatment for molluscum contagiosum. The infection can go away on its own, although it often takes months, and sometimes years.
If you or your child is already living with eczema, the dermatologist may recommend treatment for molluscum contagiosum. There are several options, like:
Cimetidine. This liquid medicine mainly helps children. If you’re a parent, you give it to your child twice a day by mouth for about 3 months. Your little one might tell you it tastes bad, which could make it hard for you to get them to keep taking it.
Cantharidin (“beetle juice”). This is another treatment that’s ideal for young children. A dermatologist puts this medicine made from blister beetles on molluscum bumps. It makes a water blister form on each bump. Then, as the skin heals, the bumps may flatten out and peel away with the blister. That usually takes a couple of weeks.
Most patients need to get cantharidin treatment twice or more for it to work best. You should only get this treatment at a doctor’s office. It’s not safe to buy cantharidin online and use it at home, because you could burn or scar yourself.
Procedures to remove bumps. These could be too scary for a younger child. Procedures like these tend to be options for teens and adults, and they’re done by a skin doctor:
- Freezing the bumps off (cryotherapy)
- Removing them with a surgical instrument (curettage)
- Using a pulsed dye laser (for someone with lots of bumps or hard-to-treat molluscum)
- Using a scalpel or forceps to remove the core of the bump
- Applying bichloracetic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid, or a trichloroacetic acid peel to the bumps
Never try to squeeze or pop a molluscum bump at home. You could make the infection worse or spread it.
How Can You Help Prevent Spreading Molluscum Contagiosum?
Your dermatologist might recommend tips like these:
Cover the bumps. You can keep them covered with clothes, a bandage, or medical tape while you’re at work or school.
Wash your hands. Scrub with soap and water after you touch bumps on yourself or on your child.
Don’t share personal items. Whoever has molluscum contagiosum shouldn’t share things like towels, washcloths, bedding, and clothes with someone else. If your child has the infection, make sure you give them their own personal items.
Take safety measures before you go for a soak or swim. You could infect other people if you go into a pool, hot tub, or sauna while you have bumps. To lower the chances of that happening, the American Academy of Dermatology says:
- Cover the bumps with a bathing suit or waterproof bandages.
- Never share towels, goggles, or a bathing suit with someone else.
- Double check that your bumps are covered if you use pool gear like kickboards and floats.
If you get molluscum bumps on or around your genitals, don’t have sex or make sexual contact with those body parts. Adults often spread the infection this way. See a dermatologist for treatment, and ask them when you can start having sex again.
Cover your bumps before you play a sport. Don’t share sports gear if you’re infected. If there’s a chance that your covering could come off (like during wrestling or football), don’t play the sport until your bumps go away.
Bathe your children separately. If one of your children has molluscum contagiosum, don’t bathe them together with their siblings. Also make sure each child uses different washcloths, bath toys, and towels.
Keep siblings in separate beds. If one of your children has the infection, have them sleep alone. No siblings should share their bed.