Blisters and bumps, oh my: If you’ve got an itchy rash somewhere on your skin, you might just be dealing with impetigo. Impe-what?! Although you may not be familiar with the name, this common skin infection is super common… and super-contagious. Don’t freak out — we’ve got all the info you need about impetigo. Read on!
What, exactly, is impetigo?
Impetigo is a highly contagious rash that’s caused by two types of bacteria: Staphylococcus aureus or Streptococcus pyogenes. Impetigo affects the outer layers of skin and typically occurs on the face, arms, and legs.
You may not realize this, but your skin’s surface is full of good bacteria that protect you against bad bacteria, and those good bacteria are called your microbiome. When disease-causing bacteria — like Staphylococcus aureus or Streptococcus pyogenes — defeat the good bacteria in your microbiome, that’s when infection happens. This is especially true if you have a break in your skin from something like a cut — this open wound creates an opportunity for these icky bacteria can worm their way in, leading to infection.
How can I tell if I have impetigo?
There are three types of impetigo. The most common form is non-bullous impetigo, which looks like red bumps clustered together. The rash usually appears first around the nose and lips. The spots will then turn into blisters that will burst open, forming a yellow crust. Super appealing, right?! The rash can spread to other parts of your skin (like your arms and legs), and the areas where the rash appears may be itchy or even painful. Once the crustiness heals, you’ll be left with red marks that fade over time. The good news is, you shouldn’t scar.
The second type of impetigo is bullous impetigo, although this one isn’t quite as common as the non-bullous kind. If you have bullous impetigo, you can expect to see blisters that are full of cloudy or yellow fluid. The blisters sag and become clear before bursting open, then a crustiness forms before your skin heals. These blisters are usually painless, and there’s no redness around them.
Finally, there is ecthyma. This type of impetigo makes its presence known in the form of small sores filled with pus and a thicker crust. Unlike the other two types of impetigo, this one goes deeper than just the surface of your skin — it can be more serious and presents as more painful, larger blisters. Ecthyma blisters have a thick crust and are surrounded by skin that looks red/purple. Ecthyma heals more slowly than other forms of impetigo and may leave scars. Sometimes, it forms when you leave non-bullous or bullous untreated.
Eek, that sounds scary! Am I at risk of getting impetigo?
Probably not, but it’s important to keep reading. Young kids and infants have the highest chances of catching an irritating case of impetigo, but that doesn’t mean you’re totally in the clear. Since it’s so contagious, it is possible to contract this bacterial skin infection as an adult… if you come into contact with someone who has it.
And yes, impetigo is really, really contagious, which means you can contract it via direct contact. That means if you have an open sore and touch an infected surface (i.e. the skin of someone who’s got impetigo or an object that has come into contact with an infected person), you could definitely get it. The reason why kids are more at risk for impetigo is that they often are dealing with other skin issues, like eczema, and if they scratch, they’re leaving themselves susceptible for those bad bacteria to get in.
How can I treat impetigo?
First and foremost, if you think you have impetigo, it’s time to head to your derm. They’ll most likely be able to diagnose you just by looking at your skin, although sometimes lab tests could be needed for confirmation.
The good news is, the treatment is pretty easy. Once you’ve got a solidified diagnosis, your doctor will likely prescribe you topical antibiotics, which you’d apply directly to the blisters. If the infections persist, you may need to head back to your derm for a follow-up, and they’ll likely prescribe you oral antibiotics or an injection.
While you’re on antibiotics, it’s a good idea to cover the rash to prevent it from spreading to others. This may also help the rash heal. By soaking the affected area in warm, soapy water you can remove any of the crust that has formed over the blisters. Impetigo should stop being contagious within 48 hours of beginning antibiotics.
Can I do anything to prevent impetigo?
There are steps you can take to protect yourself against a skin infection. Have a cut or scrape? Wash it ASAP with soap and water and cover it with a bandage. Make sure to shower post-gym and dry off with a clean towel. Always, always, always wash your hands (with soap AND water) after using the bathroom, and dry your hands with a clean towel or paper towel. And don’t share towels or clothes with anyone.
Dr. Ashley Steffens, a dermatology resident at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine (SIU), helped contribute to the accuracy of this story.