Scabies is a common skin infestation that has existed for over 2,500 years. It’s caused by the Sarcoptes scabiei mite, a microscopic organism measuring about 1/3 millimeters long that induces intense itching when it burrows into the skin. Although male and female mites can often be found in the same area, it’s the females that actually infest human skin. Worldwide, there are approximately 300 million cases of scabies infection every year.
The infestation is highly contagious and spreads through close physical contact such as hugging or sex. It can quickly spread among family members and through nursing homes, prisons, classrooms, and other areas where a lot of people are likely to be in close contact with each other. Luckily, scabies is easily eradicated through the use of medication and lifestyle adjustments.
Causes: How Do You Get Scabies?
You can catch scabies via skin-to-skin contact. A female mite burrows underneath the skin and deposits her eggs. After a brief incubation period, the larvae begin working their way to the surface of the skin where they wait to transfer to another host or spread to other parts of your body.
Possibly the most common way it is passed from one person to another is through sexual activity, which is why some people may define the infestation as a sexually transmitted disease, even though it’s not an STD. However, any type of physical contact that provides a way for the bugs to move to a new host will do. For instance, a child could pass the bug to his or her parents by hugging them.
Less often, scabies can be contracted via shared clothing or bedding. For instance, if you wore the coat of someone who has scabies, then you may be infected. However, without a human host, the life cycle of a scabies mite is only about 72 hours. If you wear or touch something that hasn’t been in contact with the infected person for 3 or more days, then you probably won’t get scabies.
Animals can get scabies too, albeit the types of mites that infect them are different. While you may get a rash from coming in contact with an animals that has scabies, it is unlikely the mites that tend to infest animals will attempt to infiltrate your skin.
Symptoms: What Scabies Looks and Feels Like?
Although the mites typically invade the body quickly, symptoms may not show up for another two to six weeks. However, since bites from the mites cause an allergic reaction in the body, you will start to experience itching within 1 to 4 days after infection if you’ve had scabies previously. Regardless of whether you have symptoms or not and what kind, you can still spread the bugs to other people.
One of the early signs of scabies is itching. It’s usually constant and, though it starts off mild in the beginning stages, the itching gradually becomes so intense that you may have trouble sleeping. Unlike other conditions that cause itching, such as hives, which go through periods of activity and remission, the itching associated with scabies never tapers off. It’ll last the entire time you have them and even a few weeks after you kill the bugs.
Another common symptom of scabies is a rash. This rash will typically consist of small red bumps and blisters that look similar to pimples. The rash can develop anywhere on the body including between the fingers, around the waist, behind and on top of the knees, on the bottoms of the feet, between shoulder blades, on the buttocks, in the inner elbow, around the breasts, and around the genital area. In children, scabies may appear on the scalp, face, neck, palms of hands, soles of feet.
When the mites burrow into the skin, they may leave tiny trails behind measuring 2mm to 15mm in length. Though these tunnels may appear gray, brown, or red, they are often difficult to see with the naked eye. Sometimes the only way to identify them is to look at the skin under a microscope. In addition, scratching an affected area actually destroys the tunnels. However, if you notice these small lines in your or your loved one’s skin, then it may be a mite infestation.
Other symptoms of scabies include:
- Sores – The constant scratching may cause sores to develop on the skin. If not treated with an antiseptic, these sores can cause an infection.
- Crusted scabies– People with severe scabies infections may develop crusts on the skin. These crusts are caused by female mites laying hundreds to thousands of babies in one place. Most of the time, there will only be about 15 mites to one host. A person with a severe infection may have significantly more than that and develop these crusts as a consequence. This type of scabies is called Norwegian scabies and usually develops in people with weak immune systems. The crusts will look gray and crumble when touched.
Scabies is easily cured using medication. There are a couple of different kinds of medicine your doctor may prescribe to help kill the organisms:
- Permethrin cream – This is the most commonly used topical medication to treat scabies. This cream contains 5 percent permethrin, which is an insecticide. However, it is safe for adults, pregnant women, and children as young as 2 months old. Nursing women should avoid it though.
- Lindane lotion – This medicine is frequently prescribed to people who can’t use other types of scabies medications or weren’t able to get rid of their scabies using other treatment options. It’s not recommended for use on children under 2 years old, pregnant or nursing women, people under 100 pounds, or the elderly.
- Crotamiton – Also known as Eurax, this medicine comes in cream or lotion form. Unfortunately, it’s not always effective at getting rid of the scabies mites. Additionally, children or pregnant and nursing women should not use it.
- Ivermectin – The official name for this medication is Stromectrol. This is an oral drug prescribed to people who have weak immune systems. It may also be given to people who don’t have success with other scabicides. It should not be used during pregnancy, nursing, or on children who weigh less than 33 pounds.
Is Scabies Contagious?
Again, scabies is highly contagious and transmission from one person to another is incredibly easy. If one family member has it, then you can bet the bug has spread to other people the person has had contact with. It’s essential, then, that everyone in your home undergoes treatment for scabies, even if they are not showing any symptoms. As noted previously, it can take 2 to 6 weeks for symptoms develop. The sooner you get rid of the bugs, the higher your chances of preventing the infestation from recurring.