Impetigo is a very contagious skin infection. It can be treated with antibiotics, but if you or your child has impetigo you should be very careful not to spread it to others.
What is impetigo?
Impetigo is a very common skin infection that causes sores and blisters. It affects mainly children. It’s sometimes called ‘school sores’.
It is contagious and can be very dangerous for newborn babies. It’s important to keep children who have impetigo away from babies and they should not go to school or child care until treatment has started.
What are the symptoms of impetigo?
Impetigo causes sores on the skin. These can be in the form of blisters that grow quickly, then burst and leave a moist area with a brown crust at the edge. The blisters can be large (several centimetres across) and quite itchy. Sometimes the sores have a thick, soft, yellow crust with a moist red area underneath.
The sores appear 4 to 10 days after exposure to the infection. They are contagious as long as there is fluid weeping from them. They are no longer contagious when they have scabbed over or 24 hours after starting antibiotic treatment.
Other symptoms may include a fever, swollen lymph nodes or feeling unwell.
What causes impetigo?
Impetigo is caused by the Staphylococcus or Streptococcus bacteria. The bacteria can get into the skin if it’s scratched or broken from atopic dermatitis (eczema), scabies, insect bites or head lice.
Impetigo usually affects children between 2 and 6. This is because the infection can easily be spread in environments like schools and nurseries.
Impetigo can also affect adults, especially when people are living in a confined environment, such as army barracks.
How is impetigo diagnosed?
If you think you or child may have impetigo, see your doctor. They will diagnose it by looking at the sores. They may take a swab to test for bacteria.
How is impetigo treated?
Impetigo is usually treated with an antibiotic cream. This should work in 7 to 10 days. If the impetigo doesn’t clear up, your doctor might give you an antibiotic to swallow.
If you have impetigo there are a number of things you can do to help manage the condition.
- Wash sores with warm, soapy water every 8 to 10 hours. Pat dry, using a new towel each time.
- Cover sores with waterproof dressings that don’t have any holes. Throw all dressings in the bin straight after you take them off and wash your hands.
- The affected area can become irritable and itchy. It’s important to not scratch it because it can make the impetigo spread and get worse.
When should I see a doctor?
Speak to your doctor if you or your child has symptoms of impetigo. Impetigo is not usually serious, but it can sometimes be confused with other skin conditions such as cellulitis, contact dermatitis and insect bites. Your doctor may want to rule these out.
Can impetigo be prevented?
Most people are no longer contagious after 48 hours of treatment, or once their sores have dried and healed. Avoid day care, school or work until you are no longer contagious.
To minimise the risk of impetigo spreading, it's also advisable to:
- avoid touching the sores
- wash your hands regularly, especially after applying cream to the impetigo
- not share face cloths, sheets or towels
- keep children out of nursery, playgroup or school until their sores have dried up
- avoid sharing anything that comes into contact with your skin such as face cloths, towels, clothes and even bath water
Here’s a list of common childhood illnesses, including impetigo, and their recommended exclusion periods.
Are there complications of impetigo?
Complications of impetigo tend to be rare. However, sometimes the infection can spread to the lymph nodes (lymphadenitis), or to a deeper layer of skin (cellulitis).
Not sure what to do next?
If you are still concerned about your child's impetigo, why not use healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.
The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: August 2019