Cosmopolitan / Maddie Rubin
About a month after I got a particularly bloody, painful Brazilian wax from an upscale salon in Manhattan, I noticed little bumps on my bikini line/vulva area. Two of them were in a little cluster, and a few others were more sparse. They basically looked like [GROSSNESS ALERT] shiny bumps with a dimple in the middles and a waxy white core. As many single-and-dating women would upon discovering something like this, I freaked out and had an anxiety attack at work. Right then and there, I made an emergency appointment with my gyno, and tore out of work to get there. En route, stuck in traffic, I cried in the cab and made all of the normal promises you make when you are afraid that something really bad is happening. I’ll never have unprotected sex again if this turns out not to be herpes. I’ll never have sex again. I’ll become whatever the Jewish version of a nun is. I’ll sacrifice my firstborn to the great god Cthulhu if this is just an ingrown hair.
After holding back tears in the waiting room for what felt like ages, I finally got into the exam room and changed. I sat there teary-eyed with smeared makeup, in my flimsy gown and sad, mismatched socks, until finally a nurse practitioner came in. She looked younger than me. It took her two seconds to diagnose the bumps.
“Yeah, I doubt this is herpes. It doesn’t look like herpes, and you’d be in a lot of pain. Do you work with children?”
“Mostly kids get this. Looking at it, I’m pretty sure it’s molluscum contagiosum. Just leave it alone and it’ll run its course.” I was still pretty upset, and asked her what the normal reaction was after diagnosis. She told me that most people are just relieved that it’s not herpes.
Relieved, I went back to work, but after some Googling (OK, hours), I realized that this was advice that I did not want to take. You may be surprised to learn that molluscum contagiosum is not one of the Unforgivable Curses from Harry Potter. It is a very pesky and very contagious skin infection that kids often pass around to each other and adults occasionally get from sex. You get it from skin-on-skin contact, and the sex part is basically incidental — it can appear on any part of the body — so it’s not an STI, technically, although some people classify it as such. I say this because, while at this point I was still sure that I’d contracted it from sex, I eventually discovered that likely wasn’t the source of my infection. (Which is fucked up to even have to say, because people who get STIs aren’t any “dirtier” or different from other people at all.) On the bright side, unlike herpes, once the bumps are gone, the infection is gone. However, it’s so contagious that it’s a real bitch to get entirely rid of.
The Internet, always a reputable source, says that when it originates in the genital area, it should really be treated immediately, lest it spread to places you definitely do not want it to go. For instance, mine were all on my upper vulva area, but I was worried they could begin to appear inside my vagina, where the sexually contracted version generally begins appearing. I called a dermatologist and told them that I’d been diagnosed with molluscum by my gynecologist and was told to let it run its course, but after Googling it, I’d found message boards where frustrated parents reported months of unsuccessful treatment on their kids’ “lesions.” (Gah.) One adult with MC2 (the sexually transmitted version) had been trying to get rid of hers for FOUR YEARS (!!) and had not had sex for at least two, in order not to infect her partner. Without treatment, it spread rapidly all over her body, including her eyelid. Again, I almost had a panic attack. Not only could I potentially not have sex for years, I had basically no control over potential spreading.
“Yeah, that’s because their gynecologists are telling them to do nothing and wait for it to run its course,” the dermatology receptionist said, sounding incredulous. “Come in first thing Friday.”
I saw Dr. Maryann Mikhail at Spring Street Dermatology, who you should definitely see if you happen to have a disgusting skin malady in New York because she’s awesome and answers questions — of which I had many — via email so quickly that she might be a robot.