Causes and Prevention
Impetigo is a highly contagious bacterial skin infection spread through skin-to-skin contact with someone who has it. While most common in young children and athletes, anyone can get it. Impetigo often clears on its own in a few weeks, although treatment is recommended to reduce the risk of complications, such as new sores or a deeper infection.
Who Gets Impetigo?
Impetigo is common among young children and athletes. Children in preschool, such as those aged 2 to 5, are often in close contact with each other. Athletes involved in sports that involve skin-to-skin contact, such as football or wrestling, are also at greater risk.
Because the bacteria that cause impetigo thrive in warm, humid places, swimmers also have an increased risk. Adults who get impetigo often catch it from an infected child.
Cases of impetigo tend to occur more often in hot, humid climates.
Causes of Impetigo
Staph and strep are the bacteria responsible for most cases of impetigo. These bacteria enter the skin through a cut, scratch, bug bite, rash, sore, or burn.
You can also get impetigo by wearing ,using, or touching something infected with the bacteria that cause it, such as infected clothing, towels, or sports equipment. Once inside the body, the bacteria cause an infection in the top layers of the skin.
Types of Impetigo
There are two types of impetigo: non-bullous and bullous. Non-bullous impetigo is most common. It starts with one or more sores, which are often itchy. The sores quickly burst, and the skin can be red or raw where the sores have broken open. Glands near the sores may feel swollen. Honey-colored crusts form. The skin heals without scarring, unless scratching cuts deep into the skin.
Scratching the sores and then touching other areas of your body can spread the infection, which is one reason why treatment is so important.
Bullous impetigo causes fluid-filled blisters, but without redness on the surrounding skin. At first the blisters contain a cloudy or yellow fluid. Next they become limp and transparent and then break open, forming crusty sores. The skin tends to heal without scarring.
If impetigo goes untreated, a more serious infection called ecthyma can develop. Ecthyma goes deeper into the skin causing painful blisters that turn into deep, open sores. Thick crusts develop on the sores and the surrounding skin becomes red. Because the infection goes deeper into the skin, scars may form as the skin heals.
Treatment can help clear the infection and prevent it from spreading to others.
Treatment can quickly cure impetigo and decrease your risk of spreading it to others. Your Water’s Edge Dermatology practitioner will likely prescribe a topical antibiotic to apply to affected areas of your skin. If this isn’t effective, your dermatologist can prescribe an oral antibiotic. Some patients may need an antibiotic injection.
Because impetigo is so contagious, your child should stay home from school for a few days. Your dermatologist will tell you when your child can return to school.
Skin care also plays an important role in clearing impetigo. The following steps are often very helpful:
- Soak the skin with impetigo in warm water and soap to gently remove dirt and crusts.
- Apply the antibiotic as prescribed.
- Cover the skin to help it heal and prevent spreading the infection to others.
With treatment, impetigo is usually no longer contagious within 24 to 48 hours.
Without treatment, impetigo often clears on its own in 2 to 4 weeks. During this time, there is a greater risk of developing new blisters and sores, as well as complications such as ecthyma.
If you see anything on your skin that looks infected, you should see your Water’s Edge dermatologist as soon as possible.
To avoid infecting others and spreading impetigo to other parts of your body, you should take the following precautions:
- Avoid direct skin-to-skin contact with others.
- Keep blisters and sores clean and covered with gauze bandages and tape.
- Wash your hands after touching or treating infected skin.
- Resist the urge to touch and scratch your sores. When you do this, you can spread the infection to other areas of your body. If the skin itches unbearably, apply an anti-itch medicine.
- Don’t share personal items with others, such as a razor, towel, clothing, or sports equipment. Infected children should not share their toys.
- Use a clean washcloth and towel each time you wash. This can help avoid spreading the impetigo to other parts of your body.
- Wash all clothing, towels, washcloths, and sheets that you (or your child) has worn or used since getting infected. Wash everything in hot water. Only items that belong to the infected person should be washed together. If you need to wash another family member’s clothes or linens, wash these in a separate load.
- Disinfect counters, doorknobs, and other surfaces that the person with impetigo has touched.
All images used with permission of the American Academy of Dermatology National Library of Dermatologic Teaching Slides.