Conditions & Treatments


Impetigo is a superficial infection of the skin, caused by bacteria.


What is impetigo?

Impetigo is a superficial infection of the skin caused by bacteria. The lesions are often grouped and have a red base. The lesions open and become crusty and have a honey color, which is typical of impetigo. Impetigo is contagious and can be spread throughout a household, with children reinfecting themselves or other family members.

What causes impetigo?

Common bacteria, some of which are found normally on the skin, cause impetigo. When the bacteria enter an open area in the skin, the infection can occur. The most common bacteria that cause impetigo include the following:

  • Group A ß-hemolytic streptococcus

  • Staphylococcus aureus

Impetigo is more common in children, but adults may also have the infection. Impetigo is made worse by poor hygiene and warm temperatures.

What are the symptoms of impetigo?

Impetigo usually occurs on the face, neck, arms, and limbs, but the lesions may appear on any part of the body. Impetigo starts as a small vesicle or fluid-filled lesion. The lesion then ruptures and the fluid drains, leaving areas that are covered with honey-colored crusts. The lesions may all look different, with different sizes and shapes. In more advanced cases, your child may also have swollen lymph nodes (small lumps that are located mostly in the neck, arm, under the arm, and in the groin area). The lymph nodes become enlarged when your child's body is fighting an infection.

The symptoms of impetigo may resemble other skin conditions. Always consult your child's doctor for a diagnosis.

How is impetigo diagnosed?

Impetigo is usually diagnosed based on a complete medical history and physical examination of your child. The lesions of impetigo are unique and usually allow for a diagnosis based simply on physical examination. In addition, your child's doctor may order a culture of your child's lesion to confirm the diagnosis and the type of bacteria that are present.

Treatment for impetigo

Specific treatment for impetigo will be determined by your child's doctor based on:

  • Your child's age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the condition

  • Your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the condition

  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment may include:

  • For a child with many lesions, oral antibiotics may be prescribed.

  • If your child has only a few lesions, your child's doctor may prescribe a topical antibiotic applied directly to the lesions.

To decrease the chance of spreading the infection to others:

  • Your child should wash daily with an antibacterial soap.

  • Everyone in the household should practice proper handwashing.

  • Keep your child's fingernails short to help decrease the chance of scratching and spreading the infection.

  • Avoid sharing clothing, towels, and other household items.

Treatment Programs

Massachusetts General Hospital understands that a variety of factors influence patients' health care decisions. That's just one reason why we're dedicated to ensuring patients understand their diagnosis and treatment options. Because a single option might not serve all patients, we offer a wide range of coordinated treatments and related services across the hospital. Patients should consult with their primary care doctor or other qualified health care provider for medical advice and diagnosis information.

Select a treatment program for more information:

Department of Dermatology

  • The Medical Dermatology Program
    The Medical Dermatology program at Massachusetts General Hospital is a full-service dermatology practice that provides care for all skin, hair and nail conditions.

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