Impetigo (im-puh-TIE-go) is a common and highly contagious skin infection that mainly affects infants and young children. It usually appears as reddish sores on the face, especially around the nose and mouth and on the hands and feet. Over about a week, the sores burst and develop honey-colored crusts.
Treatment with antibiotics can limit the spread of impetigo to others. Keep children home from school or day care until they're no longer contagious — usually 24 hours after beginning antibiotic treatment.
The main symptom of impetigo is reddish sores, often around the nose and mouth. The sores quickly rupture, ooze for a few days and then form a honey-colored crust. Sores can spread to other areas of the body through touch, clothing and towels. Itching and soreness are generally mild.
A less common form of the condition called bullous impetigo causes larger blisters on the trunk of infants and young children. Ecthyma is a serious form of impetigo that causes painful fluid- or pus-filled sores.
When to see a doctor
If you suspect that you or your child has impetigo, consult your family doctor, your child's pediatrician or a dermatologist.
Impetigo is caused by bacteria, usually staphylococci organisms.
You might be exposed to the bacteria that cause impetigo when you come into contact with the sores of someone who's infected or with items they've touched — such as clothing, bed linen, towels and even toys.
Factors that increase the risk of impetigo include:
- Age. Impetigo occurs most commonly in children ages 2 to 5.
- Close contact. Impetigo spreads easily within families, in crowded settings, such as schools and child care facilities, and from participating in sports that involve skin-to-skin contact.
- Warm, humid weather. Impetigo infections are more common in warm, humid weather.
- Broken skin. The bacteria that cause impetigo often enter the skin through a small cut, insect bite or rash.
- Other health conditions. Children with other skin conditions, such as atopic dermatitis (eczema), are more likely to develop impetigo. Older adults, people with diabetes or people with a weakened immune system are also more likely to get it.
Impetigo typically isn't dangerous. And the sores in mild forms of the infection generally heal without scarring.
Rarely, complications of impetigo include:
- Cellulitis. This potentially life-threatening infection affects the tissues underlying the skin and eventually may spread to the lymph nodes and bloodstream.
- Kidney problems. One of the types of bacteria that cause impetigo can also damage the kidneys.
- Scarring. The sores associated with ecthyma can leave scars.
Keeping skin clean is the best way to keep it healthy. It's important to wash cuts, scrapes, insect bites and other wounds right away.
To help prevent impetigo from spreading to others:
- Gently wash the affected areas with mild soap and running water and then cover lightly with gauze.
- Wash an infected person's clothes, linens and towels every day with hot water and don't share them with anyone else in your family.
- Wear gloves when applying antibiotic ointment and wash your hands thoroughly afterward.
- Cut an infected child's nails short to prevent damage from scratching.
- Encourage regular and thorough handwashing and good hygiene in general.
- Keep your child with impetigo home until your doctor says they aren't contagious.