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If you suspect you have impetigo, our highly qualified pharmacists may be able to treat it without you needing a GP appointment. As part of the NHS Pharmacy First Service, we can provide impetigo treatment over-the-counter, as well as prescription strength medication to help relieve your symptoms.



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What is impetigo?

Impetigo is a bacterial skin infection. It is especially common in children, but anyone can get it. It is very contagious, but not usually serious, and gets better within 7 to 10 days with the appropriate treatment.

It usually appears as red sores, typically on the face, hands, and other exposed areas. It spreads through direct contact, so it is better to seek treatment as soon as possible to reduce the chance of it becoming more extensive or spreading to other people.

What are the symptoms of impetigo?

The symptoms of impetigo can include:

  • Red sores and blisters – these sores can be small or large and are often filled with fluid or pus.
  • Honey-coloured crust – after the blisters burst they typically leave behind a honey-coloured crust. This is sometimes described as looking like cornflakes attached to the skin.
  • Itching – impetigo sores can be itchy, causing discomfort and a strong urge to scratch the affected area.
  • Pain and tenderness – in some cases, the sores may be painful or tender to touch, especially if they become larger.
  • High temperature and swollen glands – these symptoms sometimes occur in more severe cases.

There are two types of impetigo: non-bullous and bullous. Non-bullous impetigo tends to be more common than bullous impetigo.

Non-bullous impetigo

Non-bullous impetigo is characterised by red sores, which can be very itchy, appearing around the nose and mouth, although other parts of the face and limbs can also be affected. These soon burst and honey-coloured crusts develop which dry out. The red sore areas gradually heal over the following days or weeks.

Bullous impetigo

This type of impetigo starts with fluid-filled blisters, usually on the body between the waist and neck or on the limbs. The blisters can be quite large, often 1 to 2cm in diameter. Blisters can spread and then after a few days, they burst to produce a yellow crust. The crusts dry and the blisters heal thereafter. The blisters might be painful and the area around them can be itchy. People with bullous impetigo are more likely to have a high temperature or swollen glands.

What causes impetigo?

Impetigo is caused by the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus or Streptococcus pyogenes.

These bacteria can enter healthy skin more easily if the skin is damaged or broken, such as when there are small cuts, insect bites, or injuries, and scratching an itchy area can introduce the bacteria. Skin is also more prone to impetigo if there is an existing skin condition such as eczema, dermatitis, or a head lice infection.

The bacteria spread easily from one area of skin to another and from person to person by coming into contact with someone who already has impetigo or by touching contaminated items, such as towels.

The other risk factors for impetigo are:

  • Age – impetigo is more common in children, especially in school-aged children who may come into close contact with infected individuals.
  • Overcrowded or unsanitary living conditions – impetigo is more likely to occur in situations where people are in close quarters or have limited access to good hygiene practices.
  • A weakened immune system – for example, people who are receiving chemotherapy treatment for cancer.

How to prevent the spread of impetigo

Practicing good hygiene habits is essential when it comes to preventing the spread of impetigo. This includes:

  • Not touching or scratching the affected area of the skin
  • Washing the sores with soap and water, and drying thoroughly before covering them loosely with a dressing or clothing
  • Washing your hands frequently with soap and water
  • Washing towels, sheets, and clothing at a high temperature
  • Cleaning toys, if your children are infected
  • Avoiding the gym and contact sports
  • Avoiding contact with vulnerable people such as those with immunosuppression or diabetes, and newborn babies.

Impetigo stops being contagious 48 hours after you start using medical treatment, or when the sores/blisters dry out and crust over (if you do not get treatment).

How to treat impetigo

Impetigo usually gets better by itself in around two to three weeks without any treatment. However, treatment is often recommended as it can clear up the infection quicker, in around seven to 10 days. Treating the condition can also help lower the risk of the infection spreading to others.

Once impetigo has been confirmed, it can be effectively treated with antibiotics. Mild cases of impetigo that cover a small area are usually treated with an antiseptic or antibiotic cream. Antibiotic tablets may be prescribed for more severe, widespread cases, or if an antibiotic cream does not work.

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