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What is impetigo?

Impetigo is a superficial infection of the skin caused by bacteria. The lesions are often grouped and have a red base. The lesions open and become crusty and have a honey color, which is typical of impetigo. Impetigo is contagious and can be spread throughout a household, with children reinfecting themselves or other family members.

What causes impetigo?

Common bacteria, some of which are found normally on the skin, cause impetigo. When the bacteria enter an open area in the skin, the infection can happen. The most common bacteria that cause impetigo include the following:

  • Group A ß-hemolytic streptococcus

  • Staphylococcus aureus

Impetigo is more common in children, but adults may also have the infection. Impetigo is made worse by poor hygiene, close contact, and warm temperatures. It is contagious.

What are the symptoms of impetigo?

Impetigo usually happens on the face, neck, arms, and limbs. But the lesions may appear on any part of the body. Impetigo starts as a small vesicle or fluid-filled lesion. The lesion then ruptures and the fluid drains. This leaves areas that are covered with honey-colored crusts, which are the classic findings of impetigo. The lesions may all look different, with different sizes and shapes. In more advanced cases, your child may also have swollen lymph nodes. These are small lumps that are located mostly in the neck, arm, under the arm, and in the groin area. The lymph nodes become enlarged when your child's body is fighting an infection.

The symptoms of impetigo may look like other skin conditions. Always talk with your child's health care provider or a diagnosis.

How is impetigo diagnosed?

Impetigo is usually diagnosed based on a complete medical history and physical exam of your child. The lesions of impetigo are unique. They usually allow for a diagnosis based simply on physical exam. In addition, your child's health care provider may order a culture of your child's lesion to confirm the diagnosis and the type of bacteria that are present.

Treatment for impetigo

Specific treatment for impetigo will be decided by your child's health care provider based on:

  • Your child's age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the condition

  • Your child's tolerance for specific medicines, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the condition

  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment may include:

  • For a child with many lesions, oral antibiotics may be prescribed.

  • If your child has only a few lesions, your child's health care provider may prescribe a topical antibiotic applied directly to the lesions.

To decrease the chance of spreading the infection to others:

  • Your child should wash daily with an antibacterial soap.

  • Everyone in the household should practice proper handwashing.

  • Keep your child's fingernails short to help decrease the chance of scratching and spreading the infection.

  • Avoid sharing clothing, towels, and other household items.