What is Impetigo?

Impetigo (im-puh-TIE-go) is a common and highly contagious infection, but it is not usually dangerous and clears up pretty fast once treated. Impetigo can show up anywhere on the body, but usually appears around the nose/mouth (never inside the mouth), hands/forearms, and diaper area (in those who are still wearing diapers). While it can affect adults, it mainly affects infants and children (one of its nicknames is “school sores.”)

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Types of Impetigo

There are three types of impetigo: non-bulbous, bulbous, and ecthyma. 

  • Non-bullous is the most common form of impetigo. It starts off as a rash with small blisters and transforms into either honey-colored crust or brown sugar-colored crust. Non-bulbous impetigo can be caused by one of two bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus or Streptococcus pyogenes
  • Bullous impetigo is less common and causes large, fluid-filled blisters to show up on the affected area (luckily, they are painless). It is usually always caused by Staphylococcus aureus.
  • Ecthyma is much less common, but also more dangerous. It is a deeper, more extreme version of impetigo that causes small, pus-filled ulcers that have a darker and thicker crust show up on the affected area. This can be itchy and the condition can be made worse when scratched. If left untreated, ecthyma can cause permanent scarring and even pigment changes on the skin.

Impetigo is spread through contact. You can be exposed to the bacteria that cause impetigo when you come into contact with the sores of someone who is already infected or with items they've touched. For example, many children can catch impetigo when they touch items like clothes, bedding, towels, or toys that have been touched by someone who has impetigo. If your child has an open sore, fresh scratch, or itchy bug bite, it is more likely they could become infected.

The Mayo Clinic lists these as factors that increase the risk of catching impetigo:

  • Age. Impetigo most commonly occurs in children ages 2 to 5.
  • Crowded conditions. Impetigo spreads easily in schools and child care settings.
  • Warm, humid weather. Impetigo infections are more common in summer.
  • Certain sports. Participation in sports that involve skin-to-skin contact, such as football or wrestling, increases your risk of developing impetigo.
  • Broken skin. The bacteria that cause impetigo often enter your skin through a small skin injury, insect bite, or rash.

Visit the Doctor

You should seek medical attention if your child shows symptoms of impetigo, especially if you know a friend, classmate, or family member has had it. Schools will often send out a notice if someone in your child’s class has been diagnosed with impetigo.

Important note: Because this is such a contagious infection, it is very important to keep your affected child home for at least 24 hours after you begin an antibiotic treatment.

After treatment begins, KidsHealth.org recommends keeping an eye on the sores and calling the doctor again if the skin doesn't start healing after 3 days or if a fever develops. Also, if the affected area becomes red, warm, or tender to the touch, let your doctor know as soon as possible.

Treatment may include:

  • Antibiotic ointment (if only around the nose/mouth area)
  • Antibiotic pill/liquid (if spread to other body parts or ointment isn’t working)
  • Be sure to finish any prescribed round of medication completely.

Your doctor may also recommend keeping the affected areas washed and covered with gauze/bandages to help prevent spreading to others. Keeping fingernails short and clean will also help keep the impetigo from spreading or getting worse.

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What is Impetigo?

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