Impetigo is a bacterial infection that affects your skin, causing sores and blisters. It can appear differently depending on the stage of infection and what part of your body it affects.

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

Anyone can get impetigo, but it most commonly affects children, especially those who are 2–5 years old.

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

The first symptoms of impetigo are discolored sores on your skin, often clustered around your nose and lips. These often appear pink or red on light skin and dark red, purple, brown, or gray on darker skin tones.

These sores quickly grow into blisters that may ooze, burst, and then form a yellowish crust. The clusters of blisters may expand to cover more of your skin.

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

Impetigo types

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: This is the most common form of impetigo and causes patches of skin discoloration and sores that can break and crust over.
  • Bullous: Bullous means blister. This form of impetigo forms large, fluid-filled blisters that can burst open. Crusts then form at the open sores.
  • Ecthyma: This is a more severe but less common form. Echtyma impetigo affects deeper layers of your skin and can cause large, painful blisters that break into sores. These sores crust over and may leave scars.

Impetigo and other skin conditions

Impetigo can cause similar symptoms to other skin conditions. People may mistake impetigo for:

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

Strains of Staphylococcus (staph) or Streptococcus (strep) bacteria cause impetigo.

These bacteria can get into your body through a break in your skin from a cut, scratch, insect bite, or rash.

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

Who’s at risk of impetigo?

While anyone can contract impetigo, close contact with someone with the infection is the most common risk factor for the disease. Impetigo spreads more easily when people are in close quarters.

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

Age is also a significant risk factor for impetigo. The more common nonbullous variety is seen most often in children 2–5 years old. The less common bullous variety occurs in children younger than 2 years old in 90% of people with it. When impetigo does occur in adults, it’s more common in people assigned male at birth.

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

If your sores don’t clear up with treatment, a doctor may want to culture the bacteria.

This involves taking a little bit of the liquid from your sore and testing it to see what type of bacteria caused it to determine which antibiotics will work best against it.

Antibiotics are the first line of treatment for impetigo. The type of antibiotic you get depends on how widespread or severe your lesions are.

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

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

Home treatment

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

A number of home remedies are also available at your drugstore or natural products store. Keeping the area clean and covering it with bandages if possible can stop it from spreading.

Learn more about home remedies for impetigo here.

Essential oils

Some people claim that various essential oils can help to remedy impetigo, including:

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.

A note on the effectiveness of essential oils

While research suggests there are health benefits, the Food and Drug Administration (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.

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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 with others 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.

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

  • Staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome: Staph infections can trigger the release of certain toxins around the infection. If the toxins spread, it can lead to staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome.
  • Soft tissue infection: The bacteria that cause impetigo can cause other infections, including necrotizing fasciitis. Skin or soft tissue infections that spread rapidly are an emergency and require immediate medical assistance. Call 911 or local emergency services if you experience this.
  • Toxic shock syndrome: The same bacteria that cause impetigo can also cause toxic shock syndrome. It’s a potentially life threatening condition that needs medical attention. Call 911 or local emergency services if you experience fever, low blood pressure, and rapid heart rate.
  • Rheumatic fever: Your immune system may respond to impetigo with inflammation through rheumatic fever. This isn’t contagious, but it requires immediate treatment. Call 911 or local emergency services if you suspect you have a rheumatic fever.

Impetigo in adults

Adults have a higher risk of complications than children. These complications may include:

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.

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

  • clothes
  • bedding
  • towels
  • toys
  • sports equipment

What triggers impetigo?

Impetigo is triggered by a bacterial skin infection, usually caused by a type of Staphylococcus (staph) or Streptococcus (strep) bacteria.

How do you get rid of impetigo bacteria?

Since impetigo is caused by a bacterial infection, the most common treatment is antibiotics. Depending on how much of your body is affected by impetigo, you will be prescribed either an oral antibiotic or a topical – cream or ointment – antibiotic. Some people report symptom relief using home remedies like tea tree oil, but these will not “cure” impetigo. It’s also important to keep the area clean and dry.

What does impetigo look like when it starts?

When impetigo starts, it often appears as discolored skin sores around your nose and lips. These sores may look pink or red on light skin or dark red, purple, brown, or gray on darker skin tones. The sores quickly become blisters that may soon begin to burst, ooze, and form a yellowish crust.

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.