With the start of school comes more opportunity for young children to spread illnesses among each other. We’ve heard of strep throat and staph infections, but have you heard of impetigo?

Impetigo is a common bacterial skin infection that can produce blisters or sores anywhere on the body, but usually on the face (around the nose and mouth), neck, hands, and diaper area. It’s most common in children between the ages of two and six.

Impetigo is usually caused by staphylococcal (staph) bacteria, but it can also be caused by streptococcal (strep) bacteria, and usually starts when bacteria get into a break in the skin, such as a cut, scratch, or insect bite.

Signs of impetigo:

  • Itchy red sores that fill with fluid and then burst open, forming a yellow crust
  • Itchy rash
  • Blisters that itch and filled with yellow or honey-colored fluid
  • One or many blisters filled with pus that are easy to pop. In infants, the skin is reddish or raw-looking where a blister has broke
  • Rash that may begin as a single spot, but spreads to other areas with scratching
  • Skin sores on the face, lips, arms, or legs, that spread to other areas
  • Swollen lymph nodes near the infection

If you see these symptoms, visit your physician for diagnosis and treatment recommendations. Impetigo is usually treated with topical or oral antibiotics. If you have multiple lesions or if there is an outbreak, your doctor might prescribe an oral antibiotic. There is no over-the-counter (OTC) treatment for impetigo.

Doctors will often prescribe antibiotic creams such as mupirocin, fusidic acid or retapamulin. Studies have shown that these medications relieve the symptoms better than ointments that do not contain antibiotic medications.

Controlling and preventing impetigo:

Untreated, impetigo often clears up on its own after a few days or weeks. The key is to keep the infected area clean with soap and water (do not scrub), and do not scratch. The downside of not treating impetigo is that some people might develop more lesions that spread to other areas of their body.

If left untreated, you can infect others. Avoid spreading impetigo to other people or other parts of your body by:

  • Cleaning the infected areas with soap and water (do not scrub).
  • Loosely covering scabs and sores until they heal.
  • Gently removing crusty scabs.
  • Washing your hands with soap and water after touching infected areas or infected persons.
  • If you have impetigo, always use a clean washcloth and towel each time.
  • Do not share towels, clothing, razors, and other personal care products with other family members.
  • Avoid touching blisters that are oozing.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after touching infected skin.

Because impetigo spreads by skin-to-skin contact, there often are small outbreaks within a family or a classroom. Avoid touching objects that someone with impetigo has used, such as utensils, towels, sheets, clothing and toys. If you have impetigo, keep your fingernails short so the bacteria can’t live under your nails and spread. Also, don’t scratch the sores.

The sores of impetigo slowly heal over time, but scars are rare. The cure rate is high, but it can re-occur—especially in young children.

Possible complications include kidney failure (which is rare), many patches of impetigo in children, and in very rare cases permanent skin damage and scarring.

Call your health care provider if the symptoms don’t go away or if there are signs the infection has worsened, such as fever, pain, or increased swelling.