What is Impetigo?

A Look at a Highly Contagious Bacterial Skin Infection

The Streptococcus bacteria.
The Streptococcus bacteria. BSIP/UIG/Getty Images

Impetigo is a highly contagious bacterial skin infection. It is usually caused by staphylococcus (staph) or streptococcus (strep) bacteria. It is especially common in children between the ages of two and six. Impetigo typically develops in skin that has been cut, scratched, or bitten, which allows the bacteria to grow. Impetigo often occurs at the end of a cold, when the skin around the nose or mouth is irritated, inflamed, or sore.

Skin already irritated or injured by other skin conditions like cuts, burns, eczema, or even poison ivy is also susceptible to impetigo.

Symptoms of Impetigo

Impetigo is one of the most common skin infections in children, and while it can affect adults, it is most commonly seen in children. The first signs of impetigo start with small, itchy, pimple-like sores surrounded by red skin. Though these sores are likely to be itchy, they are generally not painful. They may appear anywhere on the body, but most frequently occur on the face, arms, or legs. The sores eventually fill with pus and then break open forming a thick honey-colored crust. The sores can be spread to other parts of the body or from one person to another by close contact, scratching, or by sharing items like towels, sheets, clothing, and even toys.

Treatment of Impetigo

Your child's pediatrician can generally diagnose impetigo simply by examining your child's skin, though he or she may choose to send a sample from a sore to a lab to confirm the bacteria present in the infection.

As common as this skin infection is, impetigo is generally extremely treatable with antibiotics. The type of antibiotic treatment (generally a topical ointment or antibiotic pills or liquid to ingest) will depend on the severity of the infection. Your child usually can return to school or daycare twenty-four hours after antibiotic treatment starts.

That said, if the infection is left untreated, impetigo can cause scarring, kidney damage, and cellulitis.

Children should be given daily baths or showers with an anti-bacterial soap and warm water. Most often treatment includes soaking the crusted areas and applying topical antiseptics and antibiotics. For severe cases of impetigo, oral antibiotics may be prescribed.

A culture of impetigo secretions may be made to ensure that the antibiotic will be effective against the particular strain of bacteria.

Risks of Impetigo

Because it is highly contagious, it is important for patients with impetigo to wash frequently. You should use clean washcloths and towels every time you wash your child and wash your hands every time you touch your child. To prevent spreading the infection, children should be kept home from school for at least 1 to 2 days after beginning antibiotic treatment. You should be careful not to share any personal items with each other.

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