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Bacterial Skin Infections

Bacteria is everywhere, including on your skin

Bacteria are everywhere, including on your skin. Usually, they do not cause any problems. However, if you have a cut, scrape, or wound that becomes itchy, sore and will not heal, you may have a bacterial infection.

What is a bacterial skin infection?

Bacteria are microscopic organisms that live, thrive, and colonise on and inside your body. In fact, the body contains far more bacterial cells than human ones.

Colonisation means that bacteria are present and replicating1

Most bacteria are harmless, vital even, playing an important role in fighting infection and keeping us healthy.2 For example, beneficial gut bacteria help with digestion and immunity, making your body more resistant to disease, deriving as much benefit from you in return. However, when harmful bacteria become too colonised, a bacterial infection can occur.

How your skin becomes infected?

Commonly found on the skin, even in healthy people, Staphylococcus aureus or S.aureus is the most common bacteria involved in infections of the skin and wounds.3e 

Infection from wounds such as cuts or scrapes

Normal, healthy skin acts as a natural physical barrier to bacterial infections.3c (client reference 2c) A break in the protective outer layer of the skin, even something as minor as a cut or scrape can lead to infection.3e (client reference 2e) Having a scrape or a cut does not necessarily result in a bacterial skin infection, but it increases your risk of getting one.4

Infection via your hair follicles

S.aureus also invades the skin via the hair follicles. A hair follicle is a small sac or pocket of skin that holds the root of your hair. The infection starts as a pustule, a small bump on the skin filled with pus, but if the bacterial organism penetrates deeper it can cause abscesses or boils.2c (client reference 2f)

Types, signs and symptoms

Signs and symptoms of S.aureus skin infections vary from mild and unpleasant to severe and painful.


  • Mainly affects infants and children 5b, 5c (client reference 4b, 4c)
  • Frequently occurs on the nose and mouth but also the hands and feet6
  • Presents as blister-like crusted sores or sores filled with fluid7
  • Highly contagious, it can spread to other parts of the body and to other children through contact with the infected area5b, 5c, 5d (client reference 4b, 4c, 4d)

Furuncle (abscess or boil)

  • Affects people of all ages
  • Commonly found on the face, neck, armpits, buttocks and thighs but can appear anywhere on the body8
  • Presents as tender, reddish, raised superficial mass or bump filled with pus – ‘superficial’ means the infection is on the surface or outermost layers of the skin
  • The furuncle itself is not contagious but the pus inside it is, particularly if it is draining

Carbuncle: A cluster of boils or abscesses


  • Usually affects adult men
  • Often seen on the face, neck, scalp, back, chest, buttocks or legs9a, 9b (client reference 5a, 5b) 10a
  • Multiple hair follicles, become irritated and red, and present as rash-like clusters of tiny red bumps10b
  • While not usually contagious it can spread through direct skin contact or shared items such as razors

Infected wounds

Any wound contaminated with dirt or bacteria can get infected, especially deeper scrapes which tend to grind dirt into the skin, and puncture wounds. Wound pain that worsens a day or more after the injury often indicates the first sign of infection, and the wound may become red and swollen, ooze pus, and you may develop a fever.11 (client reference 6c) While the wound itself is not contagious, it can cause a skin infection if the pus comes into contact with another person’s skin or wound.12

How is a bacterial skin infection diagnosed?

A bacterial skin infection may have similar signs and symptoms to other skin conditions, so it is important to consult your doctor or a dermatologist.13 He or she will likely determine if it is a bacterial skin infection and what type, based on appearance, where it is located, by asking about your symptoms, and examining any skin bumps or wounds. Further tests may be required such as taking a swab or skin tissue specimen and sending it to a laboratory.

How is it treated?

Your doctor may drain the infected area and may prescribe an oral antibiotic, or a topical antibiotic cream or ointment to eliminate harmful bacteria from the skin surface. 3g, 3h (client reference 2g, 2h) Avoid trying to drain or squeeze the infected area at home as this may make the infection worse.

In most cases, a bacterial skin infection does not cause serious harm.  However, if left untreated, and the infection continues to penetrate even deeper it could enter your bloodstream, joints, bones, lungs or heart and become dangerous 14

Reducing your risk of getting or spreading a bacterial skin infection

The primary way to reduce your risk of getting or spreading a bacterial skin infection is by following good personal hygiene habits, and keeping your skin undamaged.15a Thoroughly and regularly wash your hands with warm clean water and soap, or use hand sanitizer. Wash or sanitise your hands before preparing food, after blowing your nose, feeding or touching your pets, or caring for someone who is sick.

Good hygiene habits are especially important when sharing surfaces or equipment at home, at school, at the gym, or at the office. Avoid sharing personal items such as towels, wash cloths or razors.15b If you get a cut or scrape gently remove any dirt with cool water and avoid touching and scratching your sores or wounds.

Please note: This is educational information only and should not be used for diagnosis. For more information on baterial skin infections, consult your health care profressional.

Medical References

⦁ National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). How Infection Works. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK209710/. Accessed 15 July 2019.
⦁ Stanford Children’s Health. Bacterial Skin Infections in Children. Available at: https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=bacterial-skin-infections-in-children-90-P01886. Accessed 15 July 2019.
⦁ Leyden JJ. The Role of Topical Antibiotics in Dermatologic Practice. Available https://www.medscape.org/viewarticle/457542_6. Accessed 28 February 2019.
⦁ Healthline. Skin Infection: Types, Causes, and Treatment. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/skin-infection. Accessed 15 July 2019.
⦁ Koning S, Verhagen AP, van Suijlekom-Smit LWA, et al. Interventions for Impetigo (Review). The Cochrane Collaboration. The Cochrane library 2009;3:1-75. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2003, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD003261. Available at: DOI: 10.1002/14651858 CD003261.pub2. Accessed 15 May 2017.
⦁ Mayo Clinic. Impetigo. Available at: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/impetigo/symptoms-causes/syc-20352352. Accessed 15 July 2019.
⦁ Johns Hopkins Medicine. Impetigo. Available at: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/impetigo. Accessed 15 July 2019.
⦁ Cleveland Clinic. Boils & Carbuncles. Available at: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15153-boils–carbuncles. Accessed 15 July 2019.
⦁ Stulberg DL, Penrod MA, Blatny RA. Common Bacterial Skin Infections. Am Fam Physician 2002;66(1):119-24.
⦁ Massachusetts General Hospital. Folliculitis and Carbuncles. Available at: ⦁ https://www.massgeneral.org/conditions/condition.aspx?id=174⦁ &⦁ display=about_this_condition. Accessed 15 July 2019.
⦁ Kaji AH. Wounds. Available at URL: ⦁ https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/injuries-and-poisoning/first-aid/wounds?query=Lacerations#. Accessed 25 March 2019.
⦁ Summit Medical Group. Wound (Skin) Infection. Available at: https://www.summitmedicalgroup.com/library/pediatric_health/hhg_wound_infection/. Accessed 15 July 2019.
⦁ Johns Hopkins Medicine. Other Bacterial Skin Infections. Available at: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/other-bacterial-skin-infections. Accessed 15 July 2019.
⦁ Mayo Clinic. Staph Infections: Available at: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/staph-infections/symptoms-causes/syc-20356221. Accessed 15 July 2019.
⦁ National Health Service (NHS). Staph infection. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/staphylococcal-infections/. Accessed 15 July 2019.