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Impetigo is an infection of the outer layer of the skin. It’s most often caused by the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus. Impetigo is much more common in children, but adults can get it too. It’s more common in the summer months.
Normally, your skin is covered by millions of bacteria. Many of these are harmless, and some may be good for you. But sometimes harmful bacteria can grow on your skin. If these get through the outer layer of your skin (epidermis), they may start to grow more. This can cause impetigo.
There are 3 kinds of impetigo:
Some impetigo is caused by a type of bacteria called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). This type of bacteria is hard to kill. This type of impetigo can be difficult to treat.
Impetigo is caused by bacteria. The most common is Staphylococcus aureus, also known as “staph.” Streptococci bacteria can also cause impetigo.
Many people have these kinds of bacteria on their body from time to time. A smaller number of people have permanent colonies of these harmful bacteria on their skin. This is known as being colonized with the bacteria. These bacteria may grow inside your nose, armpit, throat, genitals, hands, or some other area. When these bacteria are just on top of the skin, they don’t cause problems or symptoms. But a small break in the skin allows the bacteria to cause an infection.
People who have these bacteria on their skin are more likely to get impetigo. You may also get impetigo if you have a cut that has been in contact with someone colonized with the bacteria.
These risks are higher in people with:
You may also have an increased risk if you live or work in a place where people are in close contact. This includes dormitories, barracks, or prisons. Having a family member with impetigo may also increase your risk. Not washing your hands after touching someone with impetigo greatly increases your risk of getting the infection.
Impetigo causes red bumps to form on your skin, often on your face, arms, or legs. These bumps then become blisters. These blisters burst and scab over, forming a yellow-brown crust. The skin may also look reddish or raw where the blisters have popped open. The rash usually begins in a single spot, but it may spread to other areas of the body with scratching. The rash may be slightly painful to the touch, and it may also itch.
If you have the bullous type of impetigo, you may have larger blisters filled with a clear fluid. If you have ecthyma, you may have deeper sores with a yellow crust and purple borders.
You may be diagnosed by a general healthcare provider or a dermatologist. A dermatologist is a healthcare provider who specializes in diseases of the skin.
Your healthcare provider will ask about your medical history and your symptoms. He or she will ask if you’ve been in contact with anyone that has impetigo.
You will also have a physical exam, including a close exam of your skin. Your healthcare provider will need to make sure your symptoms aren’t caused by other skin problems that have similar symptoms. He or she may take a sample of pus from one of your blisters to check for bacteria.
Antibiotics are the main treatment for impetigo. If you have only a few affected spots that don’t go deeply into your skin, you may be given an antibiotic cream or ointment. Mupirocin is one type of antibiotic. You apply this antibiotic to the affected areas of your skin.
If you have a more severe infection, you will likely need to take an antibiotic by mouth. Your healthcare provider may choose an antibiotic based on the type of bacteria that caused your impetigo. It’s very important to take your antibiotics for as long as your healthcare provider prescribes, even if your infection goes away before then. Otherwise there’s a risk your infection will return.
Your healthcare provider may also give you instructions about cleaning the affected areas with soap and water several times day. You’ll also need to wash your hands often. This is to help avoid spreading the infection to others. You may also need to cover the affected areas of your body. This can help you from spreading the infection to other areas of your body and to other people.
Usually the infection will go away within a week or so with proper treatment. Only rarely do scars remain from the infection.
If you get repeated bouts of impetigo, your healthcare provider may need to check you for a skin problem that makes it difficult for you to fully fight the infection.
Untreated impetigo can lead to deeper infection, especially if it’s caused by staph. Possible complications include:
These may need more antibiotic treatment and other types of medical support.
Rare complications include:
Often, impetigo spreads through direct skin-to-skin contact. You may be able to prevent impetigo by taking certain steps. For example:
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
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