With all people do to their skin, it's amazing they don't get skin infections more often. Skin is constantly getting cuts and scrapes, touching dirty surfaces, and generally being exposed to germs of all kinds. Intact skin serves as an excellent barrier to most bacteria and viruses. Broken skin usually heals without any trouble. Occasionally, though, viruses or bacteria get through the defenses and cause infections in the skin.
Bacterial infections range from superficial to very serious. Some will get better on their own, while others require antibiotics or even hospitalization. Common bacterial infections include:
Folliculitis is an infection of the hair follicles. It looks like little white or red pimples, located at the bases of the hair shafts. It's common in shaved areas and also can happen in places where clothing binds or rubs. Folliculitis often gets better once the person stops shaving or changes to looser clothes.
A boil is a larger, individual lump under the skin, sort of like a large, thick blister filled with pus. Boils are usually red and painful, and they tend to grow in size. Boils may get better on their own, but worsening boils should be treated by a doctor.
Impetigo looks like a cluster of small blisters with a honey-colored crust. It may be itchy or mildly painful.
Cellulitis tends to begin as a small, swollen, reddened area that then spreads. Often it starts with a cut or scrape, but sometimes it seems to happen on its own. The skin is often warm and painful to touch. Cellulitis may be accompanied by fever. It should be treated with antibiotics. Severe cases need to be treated in the hospital.
Some of the more common fungal infections are:
- Athlete's foot
- Jock itch
- Yeast infections, also called thrush
Ringworm is not actually a worm, but a kind of contagious fungus. It's common among young children, who pass it along when they play together. Ringworm can appear almost anywhere on the body. It looks like a raised, round patch and may have normal skin at the center. The first line of treatment is an antifungal cream.
Athlete's foot is also caused by a fungus. It usually starts between the toes and spreads to the bottom of the foot. The skin may look rough and torn, blistered, or inflamed. The rash may be itchy, painful, or both. Antifungal creams and powders may help, but sometimes antifungal medicine must be taken by mouth to cure the rash. Keeping feet dry and wearing shoes that breathe will also help.
Jock itch is an itchy, reddish rash extending from the groin area down over the upper thighs. It can be caused by many different types of fungus. Antifungal cream can help, but jock itch often recurs, especially in warm weather.
Yeast infections are caused by a fungus called candida. Candida likes to live in warm, moist areas like skin folds. Candida infections are usually itchy. The infected area appears red with a well-defined border, and may look slightly swollen.
Some common viral skin infections are:
- Molluscum Contagiosum
Warts are most common in older children, but anyone can get them. They are usually rough-surfaced bumps, often the same color as surrounding skin but sometimes darker brown, grayish, or yellowish. They often appear on fingers, elbows, knees, soles, or face, but they can appear anywhere. Warts are contagious and can be spread from one part of the body to another. They may go away on their own or they can be treated using over-the-counter medicines. A doctor can also freeze them off, treat them with a special acid, or use other methods to remove them. Warts on the genitals should always be treated by a doctor.
Molluscum contagiosum looks a bit like warts, but it's a different infection. It's fairly common in children. It looks like smooth, waxy bumps with a tiny indentation in the center. It can spread from one place on the body to another. Doctors can cure molluscum by freezing, by acid application, or by removing the central cores. However, this infection often gets better on its own.
When to Worry
Most skin infections can be treated on an outpatient basis, or even with over-the-counter remedies. However, you should call the doctor for any infection that is getting worse, failing to improve, extremely painful, or accompanied by generalized symptoms such as a fever. If the infection is spreading rapidly, you may need to go to the emergency room. Occasionally, skin infections can affect the deeper tissues, requiring IV antibiotics and even surgery to save the surrounding skin.