7 Contagious Skin Conditions

Ouch! The skin youíre in can be plagued by a variety of conditions that itch, ooze, sting, and burn. To help keep your skin healthy, itís important to take good care of it.

"The skin is designed to be your wall against the outside environment," say Doris Day, MD, a dermatologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "But if there is an opportunity to get through the skin, viruses and bacteria will try very hard to do so."

When too-small-to-see viruses or bacteria gets under the skin and past its powerful immune defenses, an infection can result. While they're certainly not pleasant to cope with, these contagious disorders are treatable.

1. Scabies

Scabies, an itchy rash that presents as itchy, blistery bumps and is often found between the fingers, around the waist and belly button, and on the knees and the buttocks, can be transmitted from person to person. Caused by a tiny mite called Sarcoptes scabei, scabies spreads in crowded places like hospitals and nursing homes, and through close physical contact.

To get rid of scabies, a topical prescription lotion or shampoo is used, and all bedding should be washed in hot water and dried in a hot dryer. Household members and close contacts should also be treated.

2. Impetigo

Impetigo is the most common skin infection in kids aged two to five. This staph infection is more common in children than in adults, since "Childrenís immune systems arenít as strong as the immune systems of adults, which makes it easier for them to get impetigo," Day explains. Impetigo is caused by the same bacterium that causes illnesses such as strep throat, and itís contagious. Most of these infections are relatively mild. Typically, impetigo is treated with a topical antibiotic, but an oral antibiotic may be prescribed for more serious cases.

3. Athlete's Foot (Tinea Pedis)

A fungal infection that can be spread in locker rooms, public showers, and gyms, athlete's foot causes a constellation of unpleasant symptoms in your feet, from itching and burning to cracking and peeling skin. If it spreads to the toes, it causes thick, discolored toenails.

Besides topical creams and oral antifungal medications, those who have athleteís foot should be sure to dry between their toes well after bathing or showering and wear wide shoes. Discard your worn-out exercise shoes, don't borrow other people's shoes, be sure to wear flip-flops, sandals, or water shoes in public areas, and avoid going barefoot.

4. Ringworm (Tinea Corporis)

Like other fungal infections, this one can be picked up in a public place like a locker room. Ringworm often comes from a spread of fungus from the feet. Sharing towels with an infected person or working out on exercise equipment at the gym after an infected person uses it (and doesnít clean it) is another route to infection. If your dog or cat is infected with ringworm, you can even catch it from a pet. Touching someone who has the infection or coming into contact with items contaminated by the fungus, like combs or unwashed clothing, also spread ringworm.

Ringworm infection causes a scaly, red, itchy rash that can appear like a ring, and it easily can be mistaken for other skin disorders like eczema and psoriasis. Ringworm appears as tiny red dots that resemble large rings on your chest, arms, or legs. Ringworm is usually treated with creams, but oral antifungals are needed. Once you are rid of this fungal infection, check your pets to see if they have any areas of hair loss, which can indicate ringworm. You and your pet can pass this back and forth, so be vigilant.

5. Jock Itch (Tinea Cruris)

Occurring primarily in teenage boys and young men, this affects the portion of the upper thigh opposite the scrotum, and causes red, itchy lesions. Males who often wear athletic equipment tend to develop jock itch, which can be painful as well as itchy. You can pass jock itch from one person to the next by direct skin-to-skin contact as well as contact with unwashed clothing.

Jock itch responds well to topical antifungal creams, though oral antifungal medications can also be used. Avoid wearing thick clothing in warm weather for extended periods of time since these can make you sweat more, and sweating encourages the growth of fungal infections.

6. Diaper Rash

More than half of babies between 4 and 15 months of age develop diaper rash at least once in a two-month period, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Itís very common for a baby to get a rash during an episode of diarrhea, when she starts solid food, or when she takes antibiotics. Diaper rash is painful, but there are steps you can take to prevent it and to clear it up.

Be sure to rinse the area with warm water after each diaper change but use a mild soap only after the baby has a bowel movementóoverusing soap actually can disrupt the healing process. Avoid wipes made with alcohol and a fragrance, and let your baby soak in an oatmeal bath, which can be soothing. Apply a thick layer of a diaper ointment that contains zinc oxide, or use a petroleum jelly product. And when you put a diaper on your baby, make sure it's not too tight. A too-tight diaper not only traps moisture but discourages air circulation.

7. Thrush

An oral fungal infection that affects the skin, eyes, mucous membranes of the mouth and throat, and the diaper area, thrush causes painful white or yellow patches, or a rash.

Keeping the diaper area clean and dry and changing diapers often is key in reducing the risk of this infection in babies.

Antifungal creams are useful in treating this infection, and most infections get better within a couple of weeks, although recurrences are common.

Want to protect your skin? Follow these five tips:

  1. Keep your skin healthy by keeping it clean and moist. This means using moisturizer, especially when it's cold and dry.
  2. Do your best not to get breaks in your skin. This is how those pesky germs get in there in the first place.
  3. Wear sunscreen. Too much sun exposure will leave you with wrinkles, and can also suppress your immune system, Day says.
  4. Wear shoes or sandals when you're outside, to protect the skin of your feet. "If you go barefoot by a pool there is a greater chance of getting a wart virus," she says.
  5. If you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, keep your blood sugar under tight control. You are more prone to vaginal yeast infections.

Doris Day, MD, reviewed this article.


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