Impetigo (em-pah-TY-go) is a common superficial bacterial infection of the skin that usually resolves itself within a matter of weeks. Often unsightly and itchy, it can be a miserable experience. Impetigo is more commonly associated with children (children 6 years old and younger are more likely to be infected), but it can occur in all ages.
What You See
There are two types of impetigo: blistering and non-blistering. Non-blistering impetigo is often characterized by:
- Tiny pimples or red areas that quickly turn into oozing honey-colored crusted patches that spread. The original patches are usually less than an inch in diameter.
- The face or traumatized areas of the skin are affected.
- There may be some itching or swollen lymph nodes, but the person generally feels well.
- Occasionally there will be deeper pus-filled sores and scabs that are prone to leaving scars.
With blistering impetigo a person will have painless blisters that may break easily instead of crusted patches. These blisters often spread to the face, trunk, legs, or arms. Similar to non-blistering impetigo, the person will generally feel well.
A range of severity exists with both types of impetigo. A mild infection will have a few lesions over a small area of skin. Impetigo with over 10 lesions in several different areas is considered moderate. A severe case is characterized by many lesions covering multiple large areas of the skin. With severe impetigo the affected person will often feel ill and have diarrhea or weakness.
Those at Risk
Impetigo is a contagious bacterial infection usually caused by staphylococci or streptococci (commonly known as “staph” and “strep,” respectively). It spreads easily in situations where skin-to-skin contact is common such as during contact sports and in crowded environments including schools, day care centers, and some living environments. Those who live in a warm, humid climate or have weak immune systems are more prone to infection. Poor personal hygiene (eg, children who forget to wash their hands) is another risk factor.
You can minimize your risk of getting impetigo by washing your hands regularly. If you have children, keep their nails trimmed and take care to help them clean the areas of the body that are prone to collect dirt. Keep all cuts and scrapes clean and covered until healed.
How it Happens
The infection begins when bacteria enter through a break in the skin. As a result, impetigo is often a concern as a secondary skin infection. For example, a person with insect bites, eczema, poison ivy, chicken pox, or diaper rash – any condition that causes the skin to break either through irritation or excessive scratching – is vulnerable to secondary infection.
In a previous post, Dr. Elaine Gilmore explained that impetigo often develops around the nose or mouth as a result of the bacteria’s colonization in the nostrils, especially with children.
What to Do
Impetigo is itchy and uncomfortable, and it can look quite miserable. Even though impetigo will usually heal on its own, the use of antibiotics prescribed by a doctor can hasten recovery. This will also help prevent the infection from spreading to others. If you are affected you should stay home from school or work until you have received 24 hours of treatment.
Occasionally, complications related to impetigo can include deeper skin infections (such as cellulitis), meningitis, or kidney inflammation.
Your doctor can tell if you have impetigo by the way the rash appears and where it is on your body.
For more information on impetigo self-care, SkinSight offers detailed guidelines on prevention, mild infection, and when to see a doctor.