Wash Your Hands of Infections
By Anna Sachse
A few years ago I went to visit a friend of mine who was in the Peace Corps in Bulgaria. A couple days into the trip, I noticed that my lips had turned an unusual shade of pink and wouldn’t stop tingling. Figuring that I was just dehydrated from traveling and that my lips were chapped, I put on a lot of lip-gloss and tried to forget about it. But then my lips puffed up like a duckbill and developed crusty sores which cracked and started oozing a yellow fluid. It hurt worse than when I broke my shoulder. At that point my friend took me to the doctor, where the woman at the front desk pointed at my face and said, “Herpes,” after which I promptly started crying. It would have been the worst case of herpes known to all of human kind. However, it turns out that this woman was the receptionist; when I saw the doctor, she informed me that what I had was called impetigo—a highly contagious skin infection that mainly affects infants and children, as well as Amy Winehouse and myself. I hope you’re eating right now because here are all the disgusting details.
According to the Mayo Clinic, two types of bacteria cause impetigo—Staphylococcus aureus (staph), which is most common, and Streptococcus pyogenes (strep). Staph bacteria produce a toxin that attacks a protein that helps bind skin cells together. Once this protein is damaged, bacteria can spread quickly. Both types of bacteria can enter your body via a cut, insect bite or dermatitis, and cause infection—but it can also affect seemingly normal skin. The bacteria is passed by coming into contact with the sores of someone who’s infected or with items they’ve touched, such as clothing, towels, doorknobs, etc. I most likely got it by touching a handrail (covered in infected fecal matter, mind you) at LAX on my way to Bulgaria.
The most common result is red sores that usually appear on the face, especially around the nose and mouth, which quickly rupture, ooze for a few days and then form a yellowish-brown crust that looks an awful-lot like leprosy. This brand of impetigo is called contagiosa. The sores usually aren’t painful but they are itchy; and scratching or just touching them can spread the infection to other parts of the body. I think I had this kind, but mine hurt like a son-of-a-bitch. (The doctor I saw back in the US a few days later told me it was the worst case she had ever seen—this after I had to go through quarantine at London-Heathrow airport on my way home.)
However, despite all the nastiness, impetigo is seldom serious and minor infections can even clear on their own in two to three weeks. That said, you should see your doctor if you detect anything like it because there can be complications, such as permanent lightening or darkening of the skin, kidney inflammation or serious bloodstream infections—plus, you look like a hideous monster.
To avoid these situations entirely, wash your hands frequently and treat cuts, scrapes, insect bites and other wounds right away by washing the affected areas with mild soap and running water and then covering lightly with gauze. Try to avoid scratching broken skin. If it’s already too late, your doctor may choose to treat your impetigo with an antibiotic ointment or oral antibiotics. I took the oral variety, along with a few Vicodin, and it all went away in two days. But the memories will be with me for a lifetime.