Molluscum contagiosum and HPV (genital warts), two common skin disorders, can be hard to tell apart. Their differences lie in their causes, future dangers and prevention.
Molluscum contagiosum, a viral skin infection, causes bumps on the infected areas. These bumps are painless and generally disappear within a year on their own. The disorder most commonly affects children.
Like molluscum contagiosum, human papilloma virus (HPV) is a skin disorder that causes bumps on the affected area. But whereas molluscum can appear anywhere on the body, HPV-related warts appear only in the areas around the genitals. Also, HPV can lie dormant for years. Therefore, a person can be infected without knowing it.
Molluscum spreads through direct contact with affected skin or infected objects (such as clothing or towels). When molluscum is spread through genital-to-genital contact, it's considered a sexually transmitted disease.
HPV spreads exclusively through sexual contact and is the most common sexually transmitted infection, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC estimates that 20 million Americans have the virus, and at least half the sexually active population will have it at some point in their lives.
Most cases of HPV are contracted through vaginal or anal sex, though in rare cases a mother can pass an infection on to a baby during childbirth. The child may develop warts in the throat, a condition called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis.
Molluscum is primarily a cosmetic concern. The warts are unattractive and they spread easily. In some cases, people develop skin irritation around the bumps. This can be treated with over-the-counter creams and ointments.
Certain strains of HPV, on the other hand, can increase a woman's risk of cervical cancer. Infections can hang around the body for years and turn abnormal cells into cancerous cells. The CDC estimates that about 10 percent of women with high-risk HPV on their cervix are at risk for cervical cancer. High-risk HPV can also increase the risk of cancer in other genital areas, but those cancers are much more rare than cervical cancer.
Treatments for molluscum and HPV are very similar. A doctor can freeze them off or gently scrape them away with a special surgical knife called a curette. The topical medicine imiquimod (Aldara) has been prescribed for both HPV and molluscum, but isn't effective in everyone.
Molluscum is difficult to prevent because it's so common, especially in children, and it can be difficult to tell whether someone or something is infected.
Abstinence and responsible sexual choices provide the most effective means of preventing HPV. Condom use can lower the risk of contracting HPV, but only with consistent and correct use. The CDC advises people to maintain monogamous relationships with partners who have had few or no other sex partners, or, failing that, to choose sexual partners who are less likely to carry the virus. However, there's usually no way to be sure whether anyone who has been sexually active in the past is infected.