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Impetigo

This section contains answers to frequently asked questions about this topic. Questions have been suggested by health professionals, website feedback and requests via email.

What should I do if impetigo keeps coming back?

Answer

An impetigo infection may come back again after it has been treated for different reasons. If this happens, it’s important to see your GP again.

Explanation

Sometimes the bacteria that cause impetigo may live in your nose. Your GP may prescribe you a cream called mupirocin to apply in your nose to kill the bacteria living there. He or she may also check this by taking a swab from your nose. This will be sent to a laboratory for testing.

Impetigo can come back if you use the same towels that you used when you were infected, but which haven't been washed properly since. Make sure you wash clothes, towels and flannels after an impetigo infection at 60°C, or at 40°C with a bleach-based laundry product.

If impetigo continues to come back, your GP may refer you to a dermatologist (a doctor who specialises in identifying and treating skin conditions). You may need to have tests to rule out other skin conditions.

Do I need antibiotics to treat impetigo?

Answer

Very mild impetigo may clear up on its own if you pay careful attention to your personal hygiene. However, antibiotics are usually needed to treat impetigo and clear it up quickly.

Explanation

Some research suggests that careful hygiene measures alone may be sufficient to get rid of very mild impetigo, which will clear up on its own after two to three weeks. However, treatment is usually needed to help relieve symptoms and reduce the risk of spreading it to others.

Your GP may suggest that you use an antibiotic cream, but your treatment will depend how bad the infection is. If it’s more severe you may need to take antibiotic tablets.

Talk to your GP for advice on the best treatment for you.

Should I stay out of the sun if I have impetigo?

Answer

No, there is no need to stay out of the sun if you have impetigo - it may even help.

Explanation

There is some evidence that ultraviolet B radiation in the sunlight may help to reduce spread of the infection. However, it's still important to protect your skin from sunburn as this increases the risk of skin cancer.

If I feel better after a few days, can I stop taking my antibiotics?

Answer

No, you should always finish your course of antibiotics, even if your skin or symptoms clear after a few days. Although you may feel better, the bacteria causing your infection may still be present in your body and you will need to finish your course to stop them from causing another infection. Stopping antibiotics too early may also increase the risk of antibiotic resistance, where bacteria stop being killed by the antibiotic.

Explanation

You will need to continue taking your antibiotics for the full course of treatment to clear your infection completely, as directed by your GP. It’s important to do this even if your skin or symptoms clear after a few days. If you stop taking your antibiotics too soon, your symptoms may return.

Finishing your course of antibiotics will also reduce the chance of antibiotic resistance. If the bacteria causing your infection aren't completely killed off, they can change in a way that can reduce or remove the effectiveness of antibiotics against them. Some bacteria survive because they have an inherited mutation (change) – this allows them to survive and multiply and can cause a longer illness. If the bacteria causing the infection you're being treated for become resistant, your GP will need to prescribe a different antibiotic that is effective against these resistant bacteria.

Antibiotics to treat impetigo are usually given for a period of seven to 10 days and you will need to use them two to four times a day. Always ask your GP for advice and read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine.

If you miss a dose of antibiotic, take it as soon as possible, then return to your usual dosing schedule. Don't double up on doses. If your antibiotics make you feel ill or you want to stop taking them for some reason, contact your GP as soon as possible.

What’s the difference between impetigo and cold sores?

Answer

Impetigo is a different condition to cold sores, but some of the symptoms are similar.

Explanation

Impetigo is a skin infection caused by the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus or less commonly, Streptococcus pyogenes, and causes fluid-filled spots or blisters. Non-bullous impetigo, the most common type, usually occurs on your face around your mouth and nose. It’s highly contagious and easily spreads from person to person through touch.

Cold sores are small, fluid-filled blisters that develop around your lips or inside your mouth. Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). The HSV infection is passed on through skin-to-skin contact such as kissing. Cold sores usually clear up within a week or so. There is no treatment that can get rid of the herpes virus from your body – once you’re infected, it will remain in your body for life. However, antiviral cold sore creams can shorten the time you have symptoms for. After you’re initially infected with a cold sore, the virus can reactivate and cause cold sores to reoccur.

Since both impetigo and cold sores can give you blisters around your mouth that crust over as they heal, it can be hard to tell the difference between the two conditions. However, the blisters you get with impetigo tend to be larger and are found around your nose, chin or anywhere on your body, whereas you usually only get cold sores on your lips and around your mouth. Cold sores also tend to come back – often in the same place – as the virus can lay dormant in your body, whereas impetigo usually only happens once in an area and doesn’t come back again (unless you become infected again).

If you’re unsure if you have a cold sore or impetigo, ask your GP for advice.

 

Produced by Rebecca Canvin, Bupa Health Information Team, March 2012.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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