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Impetigo

Topic Overview

What is impetigo?

Impetigo (say "im-puh-TY-go") is a bacterial skin infection. It causes red sores that can break open, ooze fluid, and develop a yellow-brown crust. These sores can occur anywhere on the body but most often appear around the mouth and nose.

See a picture of impetigo.

Impetigo is one of the most common skin infections in children. It can occur in adults but is seen far more often in children. Impetigo is contagious and can be spread to others through close contact or by sharing towels, sheets, clothing, toys, or other items. Scratching can also spread the sores to other parts of the body.

What causes impetigo?

Impetigo is caused by one of two kinds of bacteria—strep (streptococcus) or staph (staphylococcus). Often these bacteria enter the body when the skin has already been irritated or injured because of other skin problems such as eczema, poison ivy, insect bites, burns, or cuts. Children may get impetigo after they have had a cold or allergies that have made the skin under the nose raw. But impetigo can also develop in completely healthy skin.

What are the symptoms?

You or your child may have impetigo if you have sores:

  • On the skin, especially around the nose or mouth. The sores begin as small red spots, then change to blisters that eventually break open. The sores are typically not painful, but they may be itchy.
  • That ooze fluid and look crusty. Sores often look like they have been coated with honey or brown sugar.
  • That increase in size and number. Sores may be as small as a pimple or larger than a coin.

How is impetigo diagnosed?

Your doctor can usually diagnose impetigo just by looking at your or your child's skin. Sometimes your doctor will gently remove a small piece of a sore to send to a lab to identify the bacteria. If you or your child has other signs of illness, your doctor may order blood or urine tests.

How is it treated?

Impetigo is treated with antibiotics. For cases of mild impetigo, a doctor will prescribe an antibiotic ointment or cream to put on the sores. For cases of more serious impetigo, a doctor may also prescribe antibiotic pills.

After 3 days of treatment, you or your child should begin to get better. A child can usually return to school or daycare after 24 hours of treatment.1 If you apply the ointment or take the pills exactly as prescribed, most sores will be completely healed in 1 week.

At home, you should gently wash the sores with soap and water before you apply the medicine. If the sores are crusty, soak them in warm water for 15 minutes, scrub the crusts with a washcloth to remove them, and pat the sores dry. Do not share washcloths, towels, pillows, sheets, or clothes with others. And be sure to wash these items in hot water before you use them again.

Try not to scratch the sores, because scratching can spread the infection to other parts of the body. You can help prevent scratching by keeping your child's fingernails short and covering sores with gauze or bandages.

Call your doctor if an impetigo infection does not improve after 3 or 4 days or if you notice any signs that the infection is getting worse such as fever, increased pain, swelling, warmth, redness, or pus.

How can impetigo be prevented?

If you know someone who has impetigo, try to avoid close contact with that person until his or her infection has gone away. You should also avoid sharing towels, pillows, sheets, clothes, toys, or other items with an infected person. If possible, wash all shared items in hot water before you use them again.

If you or your child has impetigo, scratching the sores can spread the infection to other areas of your body and to other people. Keep the sores covered to help you or your child resist scratching them. Wash your or your child's hands with soap to help prevent spreading the infection.

If your child has a cut or insect bite, covering it with antibiotic ointment or cream can help prevent impetigo.

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

HealthyChildren.org
141 Northwest Point Boulevard
Elk Grove Village, IL 60007
Phone: (847) 434-4000
Web Address: www.healthychildren.org
 

This American Academy of Pediatrics website has information for parents about childhood issues, from before the child is born to young adulthood. You'll find information on child growth and development, immunizations, safety, health issues, behavior, and much more.


American Academy of Dermatology
P.O. Box 4014
Schaumburg, IL  60168
Phone: 1-866-503-SKIN (1-866-503-7546) toll-free
(847) 240-1280
Fax: (847) 240-1859
Email: MRC@aad.org
Web Address: www.aad.org
 

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) provides information about the care of skin. You can locate a dermatologist in your area by using their "Find a Dermatologist" tool. Or you can read the latest news in dermatology. "SPOT Skin Cancer" is the AAD's program to reduce deaths from melanoma. There is also a link called "Skin Conditions" that has information about many common skin problems.


KidsHealth for Parents, Children, and Teens
Nemours Home Office
10140 Centurion Parkway
Jacksonville, FL 32256
Phone: (904) 697-4100
Web Address: www.kidshealth.org
 

This website is sponsored by the Nemours Foundation. It has a wide range of information about children's health—from allergies and diseases to normal growth and development (birth to adolescence). This website offers separate areas for kids, teens, and parents, each providing age-appropriate information that the child or parent can understand. You can sign up to get weekly emails about your area of interest.


National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), National Institutes of Health
NIAID Office of Communications and Government Relations
6610 Rockledge Drive, MSC 6612
Bethesda, MD  20892-6612
Phone: 1-866-284-4107 toll-free
Phone: (301) 496-5717
Fax: (301) 402-3573
TDD: 1-800-877-8339
Web Address: www.niaid.nih.gov
 

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases conducts research and provides consumer information on infectious and immune-system-related diseases.


References

Citations

  1. American Academy of Pediatrics (2009). Recommendations for inclusion or exclusion section of Children in out-of-home child care. In LK Pickering et al., eds., Red Book: 2009 Report of the Committee on Infectious Diseases, 28th ed., pp. 127–131. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics.

Other Works Consulted

  • Cole C, Gazewood J (2007). Diagnosis and treatment of impetigo. American Family Physician, 75(6): 859–864.
  • Craft N, et al. (2008). Impetigo section of Superficial staphylococcal pyodermas. In K Wolff et al., eds., Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in General Medicine, 7th ed., vol. 2, pp. 1695–1698. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Habif TP (2010). Bacterial infections. In Clinical Dermatology, A Color Guide to Diagnosis and Therapy, 5th ed., pp. 335–381. Edinburgh: Mosby Elsevier.
  • Morelli JG (2011). Cutaneous bacterial infections. In RM Kliegman et al., eds., Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 19th ed., pp. 2299–2308. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Susan C. Kim, MD - Pediatrics
Specialist Medical Reviewer John Pope, MD - Pediatrics
Last Revised June 25, 2012

Last Revised: June 25, 2012

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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