Common Questions About Impetigo, Answered

It’s extremely common — there are more than 24788/' target='_blank' rel='noopener noreferrer' >3 million cases in the United States each year. (2) In Europe, 2 out of every 100 children will contract impetigo this year, making it the most common skin infection among kids. (3)

Here, we answer 10 frequently asked questions associated with impetigo and its diagnosis, symptoms, and treatments.

1. Is Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease the Same Thing as Impetigo?

No. Though hand, foot, and mouth disease is also found in young children and is also contagious, it’s a virus, whereas impetigo is a bacterial infection. (4)

Normally, the easiest way to tell the difference between impetigo and hand, foot, and mouth disease is to note where the rash and sores appear. Hand, foot, and mouth disease, by definition, appears frequently on the palm, soles, and inside the mouth, while impetigo does not show up in the mouth. Sounds straightforward, but Vikash S. Oza, MD, a pediatric dermatologist at NYU Langone Health in New York City, says that recent strains of hand, foot, and mouth appear outside of the mouth instead of inside, making it appear more like impetigo.

Be on the lookout for other symptoms: Hand, foot, and mouth disease is oftentimes accompanied by fever, loss of appetite, irritability, and sore throat, while impetigo in the early stages is strictly a skin condition. (4)

2. Typically, How Is Impetigo Diagnosed?

Often, your healthcare provider will identify impetigo simply by looking at the skin. (5)

Normally, if the provider feels confident the person is displaying signs of impetigo, a lab test won’t be needed. But Dr. Bisgard says a doctor may take a sample if the infection doesn’t go away after treatment. He or she will test the sample in the lab to determine the type of bacteria causing the issue. (5)

It usually takes about 48 hours to get results, Dr. Oza says.

3. Impetigo Is Common in Kids — But Can Adults Get the Condition, Too?

Impetigo is most common among children or teenagers who engage in high-contact sports like wrestling, says Suzanne Friedler, MD, a board-certified fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology and a clinical instructor at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. But adults can get impetigo as well.

Because adults don’t engage in as much skin-to-skin contact as children do, oftentimes a child will pass impetigo onto their parent. “It is contagious, typically through contact, so sometimes in more extensive cases of impetigo we’ll start to see other family members who are affected,” Oza says.

4. Based on What We Know, What Is the Main Cause of Impetigo?

Impetigo is caused by bacteria, either streptococcus (the cause of strep throat) or staphylococcus (which causes staph infections). (3) These bacteria are all around us every day but can become an issue if the bacteria enter the skin, which they do can if there’s a cut, scrape, bug bite, rash, or a skin condition like eczema.

Impetigo is more common in the warmer months, when children are playing outside and rubbing against other children and getting bug bites, says Charles Shubin, MD, a pediatrician with Mercy Family Care Physicians in Baltimore.

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5. Do You Need Antibiotics to Heal Impetigo?

Impetigo will typically go away on its own within two to four weeks, but not treating it means it’s likely to spread to other people or other parts of the body. (2,6) Treating impetigo with antibiotics speeds up the healing process and keeps the infection from spreading. (2)

Unfortunately, there isn’t an over-the-counter treatment option available, so antibiotics are needed to zap the bacteria. For a mild case, doctors will likely prescribe a topical antibiotic that is applied directly to the skin. For more widespread cases, oral antibiotics may be necessary. (2)

6. What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Impetigo?

“Within three days of infection, a person will develop small red spots,” Bisgard says of non-bullous impetigo. These usually occur around a child’s nose, mouth, or limbs. (6) The spots can turn into blisters, and when they burst, honey- colored crust takes their place. (3)

Bullous impetigo, the less common type, is marked by fluid-filled blisters on the arms, legs, or area between the neck and the waist. (6) When these burst, yellow crust appears.

Non-bullous impetigo sores are not painful, but bullous blisters can be. (6)

7. Generally, How Long Will It Take for Impetigo to Go Away?

Impetigo will go away within a few weeks on its own. (6) A doctor might prescribe an antibiotic for 7 to 10 days, though you will likely see a response within 72 hours, Oza says.

8. Is Impetigo Contagious, and if So, How?

Yes, impetigo is contagious. (2) “If the child or infected person scratches or touches the sore and then touches a surface or a toy, other children can get it if they touch that same surface or toy,” Bisgard says. “For this reason, it spreads easily in day cares and schools.”

But that doesn’t mean everyone who comes into contact with the bacteria will contract impetigo. “We walk around living with staph and strep,” Dr. Shubin says. “It’s the break in the skin that makes the difference.”

An abrasion in the skin — such as a scrape or a bug bite — gives the bacteria an entry point, which can lead to infection. (2) The infection is no longer contagious 24 hours after starting an antibiotic treatment. If left untreated, however, it will remain contagious for several weeks. (7)

9. If You Suspect It’s Impetigo, at What Point Should You Call a Doctor?

Although impetigo can be confused with other skin conditions, going to see a doctor if you show symptoms can help ensure you get the right diagnosis. “It’s important to contact the doctor right away because an infected child typically needs treatment, and it’s contagious,” Bisgard says. You should visit a doctor if you see classic signs of impetigo.

10. How Can You Help Keep Impetigo From Spreading to Others?

In a very localized situation, apply mupirocin (Bactroban, Centany), and cover the area with a bandage, Shubin suggests. “Keep it clean, protect it, and tell the kid to leave it alone,” Shubin says.

Shubin is also a fan of old-fashioned soap and water to help minimize spreading. Hand sanitizers should be okay, too, but children will likely be much more resistant to them. “There’s an abrasion in the skin already, and that’s going to sting,” Shubin says. “Kids are not going to let you do that very much.”

Parents should also keep the child’s fingernails trimmed. This will keep bacteria from getting under the nail and spreading when the child scratches other parts of the body. Other people in the household should also avoid sharing towels and sheets if one child has impetigo, and dirty laundry should be washed at a temperature of at least 140 degrees F. (3)

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