Impetigo Overview

Impetigo is a superficial skin infection caused by Streptococcus pyogenes.
Impetigo is a superficial skin infection caused by Streptococcus pyogenes. See more pictures of skin problems.
Craig Zuckerman/Visuals Unlimited/Getty Images

Do you have an itch that you can't quite scratch? Or an itch that seems to spread whenever you scratch it? If so, you may have impetigo, a bacterial skin infection characterized by red sores, blisters and an itchy rash. Impetigo often occurs in infants and children whose developing immune systems make them more vulnerable to infection, but adults can also develop it. And while impetigo generally appears around the nose and mouth, it can occur anywhere skin has been damaged or broken, such as by a cut, scrape or mosquito bite [source: Cronan].

There are many types of impetigo, but all of them are highly contagious and cause blisters that ooze pus, which dries to form a honey-colored crust. Impetigo contagiosa, the most common type, often begins as a red spot on the face that ruptures and scabs over. Bullous impetigo affects mostly young children and appears as blisters on the arms, legs and torso. Ecthyma is the most serious and painful type of impetigo because the infection penetrates deep into the skin and causes ulcers that may scar [source: Mayo Clinic]. However, most cases of impetigo, while unpleasant, aren't painful and won't produce scars.


Read on to learn what causes impetigo.

Impetigo Causes

Your skin is the largest organ in your body, and it's home to a variety of bacteria, including Staphylococcus and Streptococcus, which cause impetigo. While both types of bacteria normally live on your skin without harm, they can tunnel their way into a cut, scrape or rash and cause an infection [source: Mayo Clinic].

Impetigo is far more common in children than adults because children are more likely to have cuts and scrapes and to scratch mosquito bites and rashes. Children also spend a lot of time in crowded, germ-ridden places, such as schools, and children's fledgling immune systems can't always fight off bacteria. In adults, impetigo often develops during a bout with dermatitis, which is a routine -- but not contagious -- skin allergy.


Impetigo infections occur when bacteria appear in a cut or sore. The bacteria produce a toxin that attacks the binding proteins in skin cells, which are the proteins that help the cells stick together. When this occurs, the bacteria multiply, causing itchy rashes, unsightly sores and oozing, crusty blisters that can easily spread to other parts of the body [source: Mayo Clinic].

While you can't exactly grow a thicker skin to prevent impetigo, you can take some precautions to reduce the likelihood of infection. For example, you can keep an eye on cracked, cut or irritated skin and keep damaged areas clean and dry. You also can limit direct contact with someone who has impetigo and launder any linens or garments that might have been exposed to the infection. Read on for more tips on avoiding and treating impetigo.


Impetigo Treatments

If you think you have impetigo, you'll need to see a doctor. While some mild cases do clear up on their own, your physician may prescribe a topical antibiotic, such as mupirocin ointment, to prevent the infection from spreading. The most effective way to use the ointment is to apply it to the open sores, not the scabs. If the infection is severe, or if it has spread to multiple areas, your doctor may also prescribe an oral antibiotic [source: Mayo Clinic].

To keep your symptoms in check until the infection goes away, remember:


  • A clean rash heals fast. Germs can't live in a sterile environment, so keeping the infection site clean will help send bacteria packing. If necessary, soak any crusted-over spots in warm water to remove buildup and then wash the rash with unscented soap. Let the area dry completely, then cover it with a breathable gauze bandage [source: eMedicineHealth].
  • Fingernails aren't your friends. Unless you have impressive willpower, you'll probably be tempted to scratch the rash. But scratching can cause bacteria to get under your fingernails, which can spread the bacteria to other parts of your body. Plus, scratching further inflames already irritated skin and can reopen sores and prolong your infection. To prevent these problems, trim your fingernails and cover your rashes with bandages until symptoms subside [source: Cronan].
  • When in doubt, don't go out. As with any contagious illness, you should avoid close contact with others until your sores or blisters begin to heal.

If traditional antibiotic treatment seems a bit rash, keep reading to learn about some all-natural ways to deal with a minor case of impetigo.


Natural Impetigo Treatments

There are a variety of natural ways to relieve the itching and inflammation caused by impetigo, but you should consult your doctor before beginning any type of treatment. If you have a severe case of impetigo, antibiotics may be necessary.

Impetigo causes skin irritation, so using extracts with anti-inflammatory properties, such as tea tree oil and echinacea, may help reduce your discomfort. Tea tree oil is a versatile disinfectant that fights the microbes on your skin when a few drops are added to your bath water [source: Sorgen]. Dabbing echinacea onto affected areas can also help fight infection.


Vitamins are also beneficial in treating impetigo. Mixing calendula oil and topical vitamin E and applying them to affected areas will help fight infection, and the vitamin E will also prevent scarring [source: Encyclopedia of Natural Healing]. You can even fight the itch from the inside out by consuming foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish and flaxseed. Vitamin A can help skin tissue heal, and taking vitamin C and zinc can boost your immune system and help fight infection.

If you're itching for more information about impetigo, check out the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Group A Streptococcal (GAS) Disease." (Accessed 7/28/09)
  • Cronan, Kate M., MD. "Impetigo." KidsHealth. 2008. (Accessed 7/28/09)
  • eMedicineHealth. "Impetigo." (Accessed 7/28/09)
  • Enclyclopedia of Natural Healing. "Impetigo." (Accessed 7/28/09)
  • The Mayo Clinic. "Impetigo." (Accessed 7/28/09)
  • Medline Plus. "Impetigo." (Accessed 7/28/09)
  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "Impetigo." (Accessed 7/28/09)
  • Rashid, Rashid M., MD, PhD and Andrew C. Miller MD. "Impetigo." eMedicine. June 12, 2009. (Accessed 7/31/2009)
  • Reuters. "Doctors Test Tea Tree Oil Body Wash on MSRA." January 2, 2009. (Accessed 7/31/2009)
  • Sorgen, Carol. "Tea Tree Oil Treats Skin Problems." February 10, 2003. (Accessed 7/31/2009)
  • TeensHealth. "Impetigo." (Accessed 7/28/09)
  • TeensHealth. "Staph Infections." (Accessed 7/28/09)
  • WebMD. "Impetigo." (Accessed 7/28/09)