What is it? What are the symptoms? What are the treatments?

What is impetigo?

Impetigo is a highly contagious and unsightly bacterial skin infection that most commonly affects groups of people living or working in close quarters. For this reason, nursery and schoolchildren get it more often than adults. It affects around 3% of under-fours and 2% of children aged five to 14. Impetigo can sometimes affect adults, especially those who work with groups of children. It's infectious for 4-10 days before the symptoms appear.

Impetigo can either enter the bloodstream from an open wound, scrape or insect bite (primary) or it can develop from an existing skin condition like atopic eczema (secondary). Both types are very contagious, but secondary is even more so. It's usually spread by scratching the area then touching other parts of the body. Other people can catch it, too, by coming into contact with infected clothing, towels, face cloths or bedding, so change and wash these frequently, and don't share them with the infected person.

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What are the symptoms of Impetigo?

The most common form is bullous impetigo, which features large fluid-filled, but painless blisters. This accounts for about 70% of cases. Blisters occur on the trunk, arms and legs. Non-bullous impetigo features red sores that appear around the nose and mouth which burst, leaving yellowy-brown scabs. Sores may also appear on the face or limbs. Both types usually heal without leaving scars. Impetigo can also be seen in the nappy area of younger children.

What are the treatments and remedies of Impetigo?

It's always worth having impetigo diagnosed by a doctor in case it's actually a more serious infection. In some cases, impetigo clears without treatment; otherwise antibiotic cream or medicine may be prescribed. In between treatments, keep the area clean and dry, using warm soapy water and a fresh towel each time. Keep your child's nails short to reduce the risk of her breaking the skin if she scratches. It's important to wear disposable gloves when applying cream to the blisters or sores, to avoid transferring bacteria to yourself or other people. Antibiotic treatment should clear the condition in 7-10 days. Go back to your GP if not. Impetigo is still infectious while the blisters are producing fluid, but 48 hours after treatment starts it won't be infectious any more. You should keep children at home until then.

This guide 

The information in this Bounty A-Z of Family Health is not a substitute for an examination, diagnosis or treatment by a doctor, midwife, health visitor or any other qualified health professional. If in doubt, always speak to a doctor.

Bounty will not be held responsible or liable for any injury, loss, damage, or illness, however this occurs or appears, after using the information given on this website and in particular the A-Z of Family Health.

Further help

For health advice and information 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the NHS offers call and web services. You can also visit NHS websites for services, health information and health news at nhs.uk 

  • England – call 111 from any landline or mobile phone free of charge, or visit nhs.uk 
  • Scotland – call 111 from any landline or mobile phone free of charge, or visit nhs24.com 
  • Wales – call 0845 4647 , or visit nhsdirect.wales.nhs.uk 
  • Northern Ireland – visit hscni.net