Scabies

By:    Published: November 20, 2011

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Scabies is an itching skin condition that can affect the entire body. Scabies is caused by the microscopic mite Sarcoptes scabiei, which burrows, lives and lays eggs into the host's skin. Read on to find out more about this highly contagious skin condition and what you can do to treat or prevent it.

What Is It?

Scabies in humans is actually an infestation caused by Sarcoptes scabiei, or the human itch mite. After burrowing within the skin and laying eggs, a strong itching sensation and a red rash that looks similar to acne will appear on the skin. Scabies is a skin condition that affects people across the globe and can spread at a rapid pace. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), scabies is known to spread in locations such as nursing homes, extended-care facilities and prisons.

Symptoms

The primary symptoms of scabies are:

  • Itching
  • Rashes
  • Sores or skin abrasions caused by digging and scratching the affected areas
  • Pencil-like marks or tracks found on the skin

You may notice some burrowing tracks under your skin. Most likely, you will need to magnify your skin in order to identify these scratches, pits or tracks. You may notice patches of insect bites that resemble clusters of pimples. You may feel itching that becomes worse over time, especially at night when you’re in bed. You may also notice rashes that develop all over your body, primarily between your fingers.

Commonly affected areas in young children include:

  • Head
  • Neck
  • Shoulders
  • Soles
  • Palms

Commonly affected areas in adults include:

  • Hands
  • Wrists
  • Genitals
  • Abdomen

Causes and Risk Factors

The movement of the mite below the skin causes itching due to an allergic reaction, which intensifies after the mite lays eggs. Scabies affects people of all ages, races and social classes all over the world. It spreads, primarily, through direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected individual. However, in rare cases, scabies may also spread through shared clothing and bedding if the infected person has “crusted scabies.”

Tests and Diagnosis

A doctor will need to diagnose the condition by examining the skin under a microscope to check for burrowing track marks. Most likely, the doctor will take a skin sample to examine. It can be difficult to identify burrowing paths since they are scarce and since the patient might have scratched the skin. A doctor might rub the affected area with a fountain pen or with a special solution that glows under a certain type of light. A person with scabies will have an "s" pattern from where the mite has burrowed under the skin.

Treatment

Fortunately, scabies can be easily treated once identified. Treatment typically involves prescribed topical creams, the most common of which is permethrin 5-percent. This medicated cream is considered safe for both children and adults.

Other topical creams that may be utilized for scabies are:

  • Benzyl benzoate
  • Sulfur in petrolatum
  • Crotamiton

Topical medication should be applied all over the body and left on for the amount of time instructed by the doctor. Since scabies is contagious, a doctor might recommend topical treatment for family members and anyone else who regularly comes in close-contact with the infected individual.

In special cases where an infected person cannot use a topical medication, oral medication, like ivermectin, may be prescribed for treatment.

A doctor may also recommend the following:

  • Washing undergarments, clothing, towels and bedding in hot water.
  • Vacuuming carpets, furniture and other areas that may have come into contact with an infected individual.
  • Alleviate itching with cool baths, calamine lotion or oral antihistamine.

Complications

Scabies may result in further medical complications due to persistent scratching of the affected areas. In most cases, a bacterial infection, like impetigo, is likely to occur. This is why it is important to adhere to the doctor’s recommendations to avoid scratching as much as possible and to utilize alternative methods of itching relief.

Another complication that may arise is a more severe version of scabies, known as “crusted scabies.” This form of scabies takes on a more crusted and scaly appearance, spreading to large areas of the body. It is highly contagious and more difficult to treat than normal scabies. Individuals who are at a higher risk of being affected by crusted scabies include:

  • Those with a weakened immune system.
  • People who are very sick, which is why nursing facilities and hospitals are prone to scabies outbreaks.
  • The elderly, which is also why nursing facilities are prone to outbreaks.

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