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Prompt treatments key for skin infections

Skin is amazing. Your skin helps regulate body temperature, feels touch, senses hot and cold and protects from the elements and many infections.

Sometimes, though, a bacterium, virus or fungus penetrates this protection and causes a skin infection. Today I will describe common infections, what they are and how to care for them.

Impetigo is a bacterial skin infection most common in young children. It is spread through physical contact or from objects carrying bacteria. There may be red, blistery sores or a yellow discharge – frequently on the face, but it can appear anywhere on the skin. Impetigo is very contagious.

I recommend washing the area with mild soap and water and drying with a fresh, clean towel; then launder towels separately with bleach. A prescription topical or oral antibiotic may be necessary. If you start an antibiotic, continue it until it is finished to prevent recurrence and resistance, even if the skin appears healed.

Cellulitis, also a bacterial infection, affects deeper layers of skin. It most often appears where you have a wound, but sometimes no broken skin is seen.

It starts with tenderness, swelling and redness in a small area and spreads. Fever, chills and swollen lymph nodes may follow. If you have diabetes or a depressed immune system (from cancer or another disease), you need to protect your skin from injury and carefully care for even the smallest cuts.

Cellulitis treatment includes oral antibiotics, skin care and elevation of the affected area.

Cold sores (or fever blisters) and genital herpes are caused by different types of herpes viruses. Both viruses are spread by physical contact or by sharing objects carrying the virus. Symptoms include pain or tingling at the site of infection.

During the first infection, a sore throat, fever or swollen glands may start before an outbreak of blisters. After blisters break open, healing takes two to 14 days.

Herpes cannot be cured, but prescription medications make outbreaks heal a little faster and reduce their frequency and severity. Stress, colds, other infections, acidic foods and sun exposure often trigger outbreaks. Taking 1,000 milligrams of lysine supplement – an amino acid – daily reduces outbreaks for some people. Eating more fish, dairy products and legumes also increases your dietary intake of lysine.

Warts (genital, plantar, flat and common) are caused by a type of human papillomavirus (HPV). They are spread by physical contact. A few types of HPV can cause genital warts or cervical cancer and the HPV vaccine protects against some of these.

Plantar warts are flesh-colored lumps flecked with tiny black dots on the soles of your feet. Common warts appear on hands and are grainy and rough to the touch. Flat warts are small flat, smooth warts appearing on the face or legs.

Although the HPV virus stays with you, sometimes warts go away without treatment. Freezing, medication or surgery can get rid of stubborn warts.

Athlete’s foot, jock itch and ringworm are fungal infections that can be spread from physical contact or from objects carrying fungus. Keeping skin clean and dry reduces the risk of fungal infections and helps skin heal.

Athlete’s foot causes peeling, cracking, redness, blisters and itching on feet. Jock itch causes itching, burning, a rash, flaking, peeling or cracking on the inner thighs, buttocks or genitals. Ringworm is a roundish rash anywhere on the skin appearing red or darker than unaffected skin, sometimes with a scaly edge.

All are treated with topical medications available without a prescription, but stronger prescription treatment is also available.

Diaper rash, vaginal yeast infections and oral thrush are from another type of fungal infection. Sometimes these infections happen after taking antibiotics, which interfere with our normal bacteria, allowing the fungus to grow.

Symptoms include painful rashes, pimple-like bumps, itching and burning and, in the mouth, white patches and pain. Keeping skin dry is a preventive measure. Treatment includes over-the counter and prescription medications: ointments or pills for skin and vaginal infections, and mouthwash or lozenges for oral thrush.

Protecting yourself from skin infections is not always possible. If you do have an infection, prompt treatment makes a big difference in how quickly you heal. Take care of your skin so it can take care of you.

Dr. Alisa Hideg is a family medicine physician at Group Health’s Riverfront Medical Center in Spokane. Her column appears every other Tuesday in the Today section. Send your comments and column suggestions to