What You Should Know About Impetigo

A Highly Contagious Bacterial Skin Infection in Children

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

Impetigo is a highly contagious bacterial skin infection 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 on skin that has been cut, scratched, scraped, or abraded, providing the bacteria the ideal opportunity to infect. 

Impetigo often occurs at the end of a cold, when the skin around the nose or mouth is irritated or inflamed.

Any other skin injuries, including burns, eczema, or even poison ivy, can increase a person's risk of getting impetigo. 

Symptoms of Impetigo

While adults can get impetigo, it is most common in children. The first signs of infection start with an outbreak of small, pimple-like sores surrounded by inflamed, red skin. Although the sores are likely to be itchy, they are generally not painful.

The rash can appear anywhere on the body but most often on the face, arms, or legs. The tiny sores will eventually fill with pus and break open to form a thick, honey-colored crust. Sores can vary in size from being as small as a pimple to as large as a dime.

The rash can be spread to other parts of the body or from one person to the next through scratching, close contact, or the sharing of items such as towels, bedding, clothing, or even toys.

Treatment of Impetigo

A pediatrician can generally diagnose impetigo simply by examining your child's skin.

In some instances, your doctor might opt to send a scraping from an open sore to the lab to confirm if either of the suspect bacteria is present. By culturing the secretions, your doctor can better determine which treatment would be most effective against the specific strain of bacteria.

By and large, impetigo can be easily treated with antibiotics.

Options include topical ointments or oral antibiotics, depending on the severity of the infection. Your child can usually return to school 24 to 48 hours after antibiotic treatment begins. After around seven days, the sores should be completely healed.

If left untreated, impetigo can cause scarring or, in some rare cases, progress to more serious conditions like cellulitis and acute kidney dysfunction.

Children with impetigo should be given daily baths or showers with an anti-bacterial soap and warm water. Sores are usually treated by soaking the crusted areas and applying topical antiseptics and/or antibiotics.

Risk of Impetigo

As impetigo is highly contagious, it is important that the infected child be washed regularly using clean washcloths and towels every time. Be sure to wash and sanitize your own hands afterward, ideally with an antibacterial cleanser.

Do not share bedding or towels with a person who has impetigo or any personal care items which may have come in contact with sores. This includes soap you may have used on the child.

Do what can to keep your child from scratching, which not only increases the risk of spreading infection but can lead to scarring. If the itching becomes serious, trim your child's fingernails or speak with your doctor about prescribing an antihistamine to help relieve the itchiness.


Sole, C. and Gazewood, J. "Diagnosis and Treatment of Impetigo." American Family Physician. March 15, 2007; 75(6):859-864.

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