Information for Patients
What are skin infections?
Your skin is your body's largest organ. It has many different functions, including covering and protecting your body. It helps keep germs out. But sometimes the germs can cause a skin infection. This often happens when there is a break, cut, or wound on your skin. It can also happen when your immune system is weakened, because of another disease or a medical treatment.
Some skin infections cover a small area on the top of your skin. Other infections can go deep into your skin or spread to a larger area.
What causes skin infections?
Skin infections are caused by different kinds of germs. For example,
- Bacteria cause cellulitis, impetigo, and staphylococcal (staph) infections
- Viruses cause shingles, warts, and herpes simplex
- Fungi cause athlete's foot and yeast infections
- Parasites cause body lice, head lice, and scabies
Who is at risk for skin infections?
You are at a higher risk for a skin infection if you
- Have poor circulation
- Have diabetes
- Are older
- Have an immune system disease, such as HIV/AIDS
- Have a weakened immune system because of chemotherapy or other medicines that suppress your immune system
- Have to stay in one position for a long time, such as if you are sick and have to stay in bed for a long time or you are paralyzed
- Are malnourished
- Have excessive skinfolds, which can happen if you have obesity
What are the symptoms of skin infections?
The symptoms depend on the type of infection. Some symptoms that are common to many skin infections include rashes, swelling, redness, pain, pus, and itching.
How are skin infections diagnosed?
To diagnose a skin infection, health care providers will do a physical exam and ask about your symptoms. You may have lab tests, such as a skin culture. This is a test to identify what type of infection you have, using a sample from your skin. Your provider may take the sample by swabbing or scraping your skin, or removing a small piece of skin (biopsy). Sometimes providers use other tests, such as blood tests.
How are skin infections treated?
The treatment depends on the type of infection and how serious it is. Some infections will go away on their own. When you do need treatment, it may include a cream or lotion to put on the skin. Other possible treatments include medicines and a procedure to drain pus.
Viruses are very tiny germs. They are made of genetic material inside of a protein coating. Viruses cause familiar infectious diseases such as the common cold, flu and warts. They also cause severe illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, smallpox, and Ebola.
Viruses are like hijackers. They invade living, normal cells and use those cells to multiply and produce other viruses like themselves. This can kill, damage, or change the cells and make you sick. Different viruses attack certain cells in your body such as your liver, respiratory system, or blood.
When you get a virus, you may not always get sick from it. Your immune system may be able to fight it off.
For most viral infections, treatments can only help with symptoms while you wait for your immune system to fight off the virus. Antibiotics do not work for viral infections. There are antiviral medicines to treat some viral infections. Vaccines can help prevent you from getting many viral diseases.