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Impetigo is a common contagious skin infection. Bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus or Streptococcus pyogenes infect the outer layers of the skin, called the epidermis. The face, arms, and legs are most often affected.

Anyone can get impetigo, but it most commonly affects children, especially those ages 2 to 5.

The infection often begins in minor cuts, insect bites, or a rash such as eczema — any place where the skin is broken. But it can also occur on healthy skin.

It’s called primary impetigo when it infects healthy skin and secondary impetigo when it occurs in broken skin. It isn’t always easy or necessary to make this distinction.

Impetigo is an old disease. The name dates back to 14th-century England and comes from the Latin word impetere, meaning “to attack.”

Bacteria thrive in hot, moist conditions. So, impetigo tends to be seasonal, peaking in the summer and fall in northern climates. In warm and humid climates, it tends to occur year-round.

An estimated 162 million children worldwide have impetigo at any one time, according to a 2015 review. The review noted that Australia, New Zealand, and North America were excluded because those studies were conducted on small, under-resourced populations that may not have reflected the overall statistics.

Impetigo is more common in developing countries and in lower-income areas of industrial countries. The highest numbers of cases are in areas like Oceania, which includes Australia, New Zealand, and several other countries.

The first signs of impetigo are reddish sores on the skin, often clustered around the nose and lips. These sores quickly grow into blisters, ooze and burst, and then form a yellowish crust. The clusters of blisters may expand to cover more of the skin. Sometimes the red spots just develop a yellowish crust without any blisters being seen.

The sores can be itchy and occasionally painful. After the crust phase, they form red marks that fade without leaving scars.

Infants sometimes have a less common type of impetigo, with larger blisters around the diaper area or in skinfolds. These fluid-filled blisters soon burst, leaving a scaly rim called a collarette.

Impetigo can be uncomfortable. Occasionally, it may involve a fever or swollen glands in the area of the outbreak.

Because impetigo can occur on any part of the skin, it may take on a slightly different appearance for different people. It will also look different depending on the stage of the infection. Below are example pictures of impetigo on a variety of skin tones.

Impetigo is an infection caused by strains of staphylococcus (staph) or streptococcus (strep) bacteria. These bacteria can get into your body through a break in the skin from a cut, scratch, insect bite, or rash. Then, they can invade and colonize.

The condition can be contagious. You can catch these bacteria if you touch the sores of a person with impetigo or you touch items like towels, clothes, or sheets that the person used.

However, these bacteria are also common in our environment, and most people who come in contact with them won’t necessarily develop impetigo.

Some people normally carry staph bacteria on the inside of their nose. They may get an infection if the bacteria spreads to their skin.

Adults and children are at higher risk of impetigo if they:

While anyone can contract impetigo, close contact with someone who already has the infection is the most common risk factor for the condition. Impetigo spreads more easily when people are in close quarters, such as in:

  • households
  • schools
  • day cares
  • prisons
  • military training facilities

Age is also a significant risk factor for impetigo. The more common nonbullous variety is seen most often in children 2 to 5 years old. The less common bullous variety occurs in children younger than 2 in 90 percent of cases. When impetigo does occur in adults, it is more common in men.

Having cuts and scrapes can increase your risk of impetigo. Be aware of activities that might break your skin, and wear appropriate protective equipment or clothing when possible. Open wounds should be cleaned and bandaged.

Living in a hot or humid climate will increase your risk of impetigo, but it can occur anywhere.

Having poor personal hygiene increases your risk of impetigo as well. You can decrease your risk with:

The bacteria responsible for impetigo can cause complications including other more serious infections and harmful immune responses.

Staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome

Impetigo is caused by the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus in 80 percent of cases. This bacterium triggers the release of certain toxins.

In the local area around the infection, these toxins can lead to impetigo. If the toxins spread more generally around the body, this can lead to staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome (SSSS).

Soft tissue infection

The bacteria that cause impetigo can cause other skin and soft tissue infections, including necrotizing fasciitis.

Medical emergency

Any skin or soft tissue infection that you notice spreading rapidly should be treated as a medical emergency. Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.

Toxic shock syndrome

The same bacteria that cause impetigo can also cause toxic shock syndrome. When the bacteria leave the skin and enter the bloodstream, toxic shock syndrome can arise as a complication. The symptoms are usually felt rapidly. It is a potentially life threatening condition that needs medical attention.

Medical emergency

Toxic shock syndrome is a medical emergency. Call emergency services or go to the nearest emergency room if you experience:

Rheumatic fever

Group A Streptococcus is the bacteria responsible for strep throat and scarlet fever, and it can sometimes cause impetigo. After having one of these infections, your body’s immune system may respond with inflammation in the form of rheumatic fever.

Because rheumatic fever is an immune response, it’s not contagious, but the underlying infections can be.

Rheumatic fever most often affects children ages 5 to 15, although it can develop at any age. It should be treated right away to avoid long-term complications.

It’s a good idea to see a doctor if you suspect impetigo. They can usually diagnose the infection by its appearance.

If the sores don’t clear up with treatment, the doctor may want to culture the bacteria. This involves taking a little bit of the liquid that comes out of the sore and testing it to see what type of bacteria caused it to determine which antibiotics will work best against it.

Antibiotics are effective against impetigo. The type of antibiotic you get depends on how widespread or severe the lesions are.

If you have impetigo in only a small area of your skin, topical antibiotics are the preferred treatment. Options include mupirocin cream or ointment (Bactroban or Centany) and retapamulin ointment (Altabax).

If your impetigo is severe or widespread, your doctor can prescribe oral antibiotics such as:

These drugs may work more quickly than topical antibiotics, but they aren’t necessarily better at clearing the infection.

Oral antibiotics can also cause more side effects, such as nausea, than topical antibiotics.

With treatment, impetigo usually heals in 7 to 10 days. If you have an underlying infection or skin disease, the infection may take longer to heal.

Although impetigo is more common in young children, adults can get it too. Because it’s so contagious, impetigo can spread through any close contact. Adults who play sports often catch it from skin-to-skin contact.

The symptoms of impetigo in adults are sores around the nose and mouth or other exposed areas of the body. These sores break open, ooze, and then crust.

Generally, impetigo is a mild skin condition, but adults have a higher risk of complications than children. These complications may include:

Impetigo isn’t the only infectious rash adults can get. Here are a few other contagious skin conditions.

Toddlers are the most likely age group to develop impetigo. The infection looks different on young children than it does on adults. Parents may see sores on their child’s:

  • nose and mouth area
  • trunk (torso)
  • hands
  • feet
  • diaper area

In young children, often the cause is scratching at an insect bite or scrape on the skin. Scratching allows bacteria to get into the skin.

Continuing to scratch can cause a more serious infection or lead to scarring.

Parents can help prevent complications by covering the sores and cutting their child’s nails.

There are three types of impetigo based on the bacteria that cause them and the sores that form. Each type goes through a series of stages.

Nonbullous

Nonbullous impetigo is mainly caused by Staphylococcus aureus. It’s the most common form of impetigo, causing an estimated 70 percent of cases, according to a 2014 review.

It goes through the following stages:

  • It usually starts with reddish, itchy sores around the mouth and nose.
  • The sores break open, leaving red and irritated skin around them.
  • A brownish-yellow crust forms.
  • When the crusts heal, there are reddish spots that fade and don’t leave scars.

Bullous

Bullous impetigo is almost always caused by Staphylococcus aureus bacteria.

  • It usually forms larger blisters, or bullae, filled with a clear fluid that may become darker and cloudy. The blisters start on unbroken skin and aren’t surrounded by reddish areas.
  • The blisters become limp and clear and then burst open.
  • A yellowish, crusty sore forms over the area where the blisters broke open.
  • The blisters usually leave no scars behind when they heal.

Ecthyma

This infection is more serious but much less common. It occasionally happens when impetigo isn’t treated.Ecthyma goes deeper into the skin than the other forms of impetigo, and it’s more severe.

  • The infection forms painful blisters on the skin of the buttocks, thighs, legs, ankles, and feet.
  • The blisters turn into pus-filled sores with a thicker crust.
  • Often, the skin around the sores turns red.
  • Ecthyma sores heal slowly and may leave scars after they heal.

Antibiotics are the main treatment for impetigo, but you may be able to help the infection heal faster with home treatments in addition to treatment recommended by your doctor.

Warm water and OTC antibiotics

Clean and soak the sores three to four times a day until the sores heal. Gently clean the sores with warm water and soap, and then remove the crusts. Wash your hands thoroughly after treating the sores to avoid spreading the infection.

Dry the area and apply the prescription antibiotic ointment as directed. Then, cover the sores lightly with gauze if they are in an area where you can do this.

For a minor outbreak, you can use an over-the-counter (OTC) antibiotic ointment. Apply it three times a day after cleaning the area. Then, cover the sore with a bandage or gauze. After a few days, if you don’t see improvement, you should see a doctor.

Household bleach

Another home treatment is a 15-minute bath with a very dilute solution of household bleach (2.2 percent). This reduces the number of bacteria on the skin if you use it regularly.

For a full-size bath, use 1/2 cup of bleach. Rinse off with warm water and pat dry afterward.

Use caution if you have sensitive skin. Some people have an allergic reaction to bleach. Additionally, supervision is necessary around bathwater and when using any bleach or other home remedies to avoid drownings or accidental ingestion.

Other remedies

A number of home remedies are also available at your drugstore or natural products store. Using them correctly might improve the odds that they’ll help your impetigo, though they haven’t been shown to effectively treat impetigo on their own.

Essential oils are liquids extracted from plants. Dozens of essential oils have antibacterial properties. This suggests that essential oils may be a useful remedy for impetigo, though currently there is no research to support this.

These products could have advantages over antibiotics because some of the bacteria that cause impetigo have become resistant to current antibiotic drugs.

A few of the essential oils that may help remedy impetigo are:

Before you try any essential oil or other alternative treatment, speak with a doctor. Some of these products can cause side effects, and they may not be safe for everyone. Make sure to dilute essential oil in a carrier oil before applying it to our skin. Don’t apply it in or around your eyes.

A note on effectiveness of essential oils

While research suggests there are health benefits, the FDA doesn’t monitor or regulate the purity or quality of essential oils. It’s important to talk with a healthcare professional before you begin using essential oils and be sure to research the quality of a brand’s products. Always do a patch test before trying a new essential oil.

If the lesions can’t be reliably covered, children with impetigo should stay home until they no longer have an active infection that can be passed to others. Adults who work in jobs that involve close contact should ask their doctor when it’s safe for them to return to work.

Good hygiene is the best way to prevent impetigo. Follow these tips:

  • Bathe and wash your hands often to cut down on skin bacteria.
  • Cover any skin wounds or insect bites to protect the area.
  • Keep your nails clipped and clean.
  • Don’t touch or scratch open sores. This can spread the infection.
  • Wash everything that comes into contact with the impetigo sores in hot water and laundry bleach.
  • Change bed linens, towels, and clothing that come into contact with the sores often, until the sores are no longer contagious.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces, equipment, and toys that may have come into contact with impetigo.
  • Don’t share any personal items with someone who has impetigo.

The open sores are highly contagious. Scratching the sores can spread the infection from one place on your skin to another, or to another person. The infection can also spread from anything touched by a person with an impetigo infection.

Because it spreads so easily, impetigo is sometimes called the school disease. It can quickly spread from child to child in a classroom or day care center where children are in close contact. For the same reason, it also spreads easily in families.

Hygiene is key to controlling impetigo’s spread. If you or your child has impetigo, wash and disinfect everything the infection might come into contact with, including:

  • clothes
  • bedding
  • towels
  • toys
  • sports equipment

Topical antibiotics, such as mupirocin, can usually clear up impetigo in a few days and shorten the length of time that the infection is contagious. Oral antibiotics stop the infection from being contagious after 24 to 48 hours.

Like impetigo, cold sores are blisters that form around your mouth. You might also see them on your nose or fingers.

Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). This virus comes in two forms: HSV-1 and HSV-2. Usually, HSV-1 causes cold sores, while HSV-2 causes genital herpes.

Antiviral creams and pills treat cold sores if necessary. You can spread or catch the virus that causes cold sores through kissing. The sores remain infectious until they crust over, so avoid kissing anyone who has never had cold sores until that time.

Cold sores form in five stages. Learn what to expect after you see one pop up.

Ringworm is a fungal infection of the skin. The name refers to the ring-like shape of the red, raised skin patches it produces. Unlike impetigo, ringworm doesn’t cause yellow crusting.

You can catch ringworm through direct contact or by sharing personal items with people who have a ringworm infection. The ring may appear on the:

The typical treatment is with an antifungal skin cream. Some products are available over the counter. Others require a prescription from a doctor.

Ringworm can be itchy and annoying. Good hygiene can help prevent it or keep it from coming back.

Erysipelas is a bacterial infection that affects the upper layers of skin. It’s caused by the same strep bacteria that are responsible for strep throat. Similar to impetigo, these bacteria sneak into the skin through an open wound or crack.

Erysipelas causes blisters on the face and legs. Other symptoms include a fever and chills.

Doctors typically prescribe oral antibiotics to treat the infection. More severe cases may need to be treated with intravenous (IV) antibiotics in a hospital.

Treatment is usually very effective at eliminating the infection. Not treating erysipelas can increase your risk of serious complications.

Eczema isn’t an infection. Instead, it can be a reaction to substances in your environment, like detergent, metal, or latex, or it may be associated with allergies or asthma.

Symptoms of eczema include:

  • red, itchy skin
  • dry skin

One type called dyshidrotic eczema causes tiny fluid-filled blisters to form on your hands or feet. These blisters may itch or hurt.

People who have allergies are more likely to get eczema. Avoiding the substance that caused the skin reaction can prevent it in the future.

Eczema comes in seven different types. Learn how to identify them.

Impetigo is a highly contagious bacterial skin infection that generally isn’t serious. It clears up faster with antibiotics and requires good hygiene to prevent it from spreading.

If you suspect that you or a loved one has impetigo, contact a doctor for diagnosis.