What Is Scabies?
Scabies is an infestation of tiny mites called Sarcoptes scabies, which set up shop in the outer layers of human skin. As the mites burrow and lay eggs inside the skin, the infestation leads to unrelenting itching and an angry-looking rash.
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Symptoms of Scabies
Scabies is not an infection, but an infestation. When a person is infested with scabies for the first time, it can take four to six weeks for the skin to react to the invasion. The most common symptoms are:
- Pimple-like rash
- Intense itching, especially at night
- Scales or blisters
- Sores caused by scratching
In its early stages, scabies may be mistaken for other skin conditions because the rash looks similar. This image compares the looks of mosquito bites, acne, and scabies. What distinguishes scabies from other acne and mosquito bites is the unrelenting itch. Itching is usually most severe in children and the elderly.
The most prominent symptom of scabies is the appearance of track-like burrows in the skin. These raised lines are commonly grayish-white or skin-colored. They are created when female mites burrow just under the surface of the skin. After creating a burrow, each female lays 10 to 25 eggs inside.
Where Do Scabies Mites Live?
Scabies mites can live anywhere on the body, but some of their favorite spots include:
- Between the fingers
- Around the waistline and navel
- The folds of the wrist, elbow, or knee
- On the breasts or genitals
- The head, neck, face, palms, and soles of young children
Can Scabies Mites Be Seen?
Most people with scabies only carry 10 to 15 mites at any given time, and each mite is less than half a millimeter long. This makes them hard to spot. Without a microscope, they may appear like tiny black dots on the skin. A microscope can identify mites, eggs, or fecal matter from a skin scraping.
How Does Scabies Spread?
Scabies spreads through protracted, skin-to-skin contact that gives the mites time to crawl from one person to another. Also, they can also be spread through shared personal items, such as bedding or towels. Scabies can be passed easily between family members or sexual partners. It is not likely to spread through a quick handshake or hug because the mites can’t fly or jump, and it crawls very slowly.
Can You Get Scabies from a Pet?
Dogs and cats get scabies, too. In pets, they are better known as mange. However, canine scabies and feline scabies are not caused by the same type of mite that triggers human scabies. You can get mites from handling an infested pet, but these mites can’t breed in human skin. This means they usually die off without causing any symptoms.
READ ALSO: Diseases You Can Get From Your Pets
Who Gets Scabies?
Anyone can get scabies, but those at higher risk include:
- Sexual partners
- People living in crowded conditions
- Prison inmates
- People in institutional care
Scabies in Daycare and Nursing Homes
Scabies outbreaks occasionally occur in daycare centers. Young children appear to play in ways that involve skin-to-skin contact. They may also share naptime mats and blankets. If scabies is found in a child who attends daycare, it’s vital to immediately alert the staff. The child’s classmates and caregivers will probably need to be treated as well, even if symptoms are yet to appear.
Long-term care facilities, including nursing homes and homes for the disabled, are also susceptible to scabies epidemics. Since caregivers assist residents with bathing and dressing, skin-to-skin contact is common.
Crusted scabies, also called Norwegian scabies, is a very serious infestation involving tens of thousands of mites on a single person. This causes the skin to develop thick crusts full of mites and eggs. Crusted scabies is most common in the elderly, people with weakened immune systems, and the disabled. This type of scabies is highly contagious and requires immediate treatment to prevent severe outbreaks.
Resisting scratching the skin may be difficult due to the intense itch of scabies. Frequent scratching can create open sores that are susceptible to infection. Bacterial skin infections, such as impetigo, are the most common complication of scabies. Symptoms may include blisters oozing honey-colored fluid. Antibiotics is usually used for treatment.
A doctor can identify scabies based on the appearance of the rash and your description of the itch. Sometimes a skin scraping is used to confirm the diagnosis. This involves collecting skin from the affected area and using a microscope to check the sample for mites, eggs, or fecal matter.
Scabies will not go away on its own, but it can only be cured with prescription medications that destroy the mites. Treatment is a cream or lotion that is applied to the whole body from the neck down in most cases. It is left on for 8 to 14 hours and then washed off. A doctor may also prescribe pills to treat scabies. Treatment takes up to three days, depending on the medication.
Prescriptions can kill scabies mites and destroy their eggs, but they don’t provide any instant relief from the itch. Antihistamine pills can help to control itch. Hydrocortisone cream may also help, but it can change the appearance of the scabies rash, making the condition harder to diagnose. It’s best to use this cream only after your doctor has confirmed the diagnosis.
Who Needs to Be Treated?
When someone is diagnosed with scabies, anyone who has close physical contact with the person should also be treated. Close contact includes bathing together, sleeping in the same bed, or even holding hands. Doctors usually recommend treating all members of the household, even if symptoms are not yet present. This is because it can take four to six weeks for symptoms to appear.
Getting Rid of Scabies From the Home
Scabies mites can live up to two to three days on the surface of clothes, bedding, or towels. To make sure these mites are eliminated, wash any sheets and clothing used by the affected person within the past three days. Wash the items in hot water and dry them in a hot dryer or take them to a dry-cleaner. Items that can’t be washed should be placed in a sealed plastic bag for seven days.