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What is scabies?
Scabies is a skin infestation caused by a mite known as the Sarcoptes scabiei. Untreated, these microscopic mites can live on your skin for months. They reproduce on the surface of your skin and then burrow into it and lay eggs. This causes an itchy, red rash to form on the skin.
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The infestation of mites may also be transmitted through infested clothing or bedding. Intimate contact isn’t necessary.
Although scabies can be bothersome, they can usually be eliminated effectively. Treatment often consists of medications that kill scabies mites and their eggs. Since scabies is so contagious, doctors will usually recommend treatment for an entire group of people who are in frequent contact with a person who has scabies.
Recognizing scabies bites and the distinctive red rash can help you find treatment faster.
After the initial exposure to scabies, it can take up to six weeks for symptoms to appear. The symptoms usually develop more quickly in people who’ve had scabies before.
The hallmark symptoms of scabies include a rash and intense itching that gets worse at night. Continuous scratching of the infected area can create sores that become infected. If this occurs, additional treatment with antibiotics for the skin infection may be recommended.
Common sites for scabies in older children and adults include the:
- area between the fingers
Scabies in babies and toddlers, and sometimes the very elderly or immunocompromised, can include the:
- soles of the feet
The rash itself can consist of tiny bites, hives, bumps under the skin, or pimple-like bumps. The burrow tracks of the mite can sometimes be seen on the skin. They may appear as tiny raised or discolored lines.
Scabies is the result of an infestation of tiny, eight-legged mites. These bugs are so small you can’t see them on your skin, but you can certainly see their effects.
The mites will burrow into the top layer of your skin to live and feed. Female mites will lay eggs. Your skin will react to the mites and their waste, and you’ll develop a red, itchy rash.
These mites are easily passed between people. Direct skin-to-skin contact is the most common way to share the infestation. The mites can also be spread through infested:
Facilities where people live in close contact to one another often see infestations spread easily. These may include nursing homes or extended-care facilities.
Treatment for scabies usually involves getting rid of the infestation with prescription ointments, creams, and lotions that can be applied directly to the skin. Oral medications are also available.
Your doctor will probably instruct you to apply the medicine at night when the mites are most active. You may need to treat all of your skin from the neck down. The medicine can be washed off the following morning.
Make sure you follow your doctor’s instructions very carefully. You may need to repeat the topical treatment in seven days.
Some common medicines used to treat scabies include:
- 5 percent permethrin cream
- 25 percent benzyl benzoate lotion
- 10 percent sulfur ointment
- 10 percent crotamiton cream
- 1 percent lindane lotion
Your doctor may also prescribe additional medications to help relieve some of the bothersome symptoms associated with scabies. These medications include:
- antihistamines, such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine) or pramoxine lotion to help control the itching
- antibiotics to kill any infections that develop as a result of constantly scratching your skin
- steroid creams to relieve swelling and itching
More aggressive treatment may be needed for severe or widespread scabies. An oral tablet called ivermectin (Stromectol) can be given to people who:
- don’t see an improvement in symptoms after initial treatment
- have crusted scabies
- have scabies that covers most of the body
Sulfur is an ingredient used in several prescription scabies treatments. You can also purchase sulfur over the counter and use it as a soap, ointment, shampoo, or liquid to treat scabies.
It’s important to note, however, that no over-the-counter scabies treatments have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
During the first week of treatment, it may seem as if the symptoms are getting worse. However, after the first week, you’ll notice less itching, and you should be completely healed by the fourth week of treatment.
Skin that hasn’t healed within a month may still be infested with scabies mites. It’s important to remember that “post-scabies itch” can last up to one month.
Contact your doctor right away if you find that symptoms continue after four weeks of treatment.
Some traditional scabies treatments can cause unwanted side effects, such as a burning sensation on the skin, redness, swelling, and even numbness or tingling. While these are typically temporary, they may be uncomfortable.
Common natural treatments for scabies include:
Tea tree oil
This gel is known for its ability to ease skin irritation and burning, but a small study found that aloe vera was just as successful as a prescription treatment at treating scabies. Just be sure to buy pure aloe vera, not an aloe vera-infused product.
Though it will not kill the mites, creams made with capsaicin from cayenne peppers may relieve pain and itching by desensitizing your skin to the bothersome bites and bugs.
Clove oil is a natural bug killer, so it stands to reason mites might die in its presence. Other essential oils, including lavender, lemongrass, and nutmeg, could have some benefit at treating scabies.
Active components from the bark, leaves, and seeds of the neem tree may kill the mites that cause scabies. Soaps, creams, and oils made with the tree’s extract may help deliver the fatal blow to the mites.
Home remedies for scabies show some promise for both relieving symptoms of an infestation and killing the mites that are causing the uncomfortable symptoms. Learn more about these natural scabies treatments so you can decide if one is right for you.
Scabies is contagious. It can be spread in the following ways:
- prolonged skin-to-skin contact, such as holding hands
- intimate personal contact, such as having sexual intercourse
- sharing clothing, bedding, or towels that have been used by someone with a scabies infection
Since scabies is mostly transmitted through direct physical contact, the infestation can easily be passed on to family members, friends, and sexual partners. The infestation may also spread quickly in:
- nursing homes
- rehab facilities
- sports locker rooms
There’s only one type of mite that causes a scabies infestation. This mite is called Sarcoptes scabiei. However, these mites can cause several types of infestations.
This infestation is the most common. It causes an itchy rash on the hands, wrists, and other common spots. However, it doesn’t infest the scalp or face.
This type of scabies may develop as itchy, raised bumps or lumps, especially in the genital areas, armpits, or groin.
Some people with scabies may develop another form of scabies known as Norwegian scabies, or crusted scabies. This is a more severe and extremely contagious type of scabies. People with crusted scabies develop thick crusts of skin that contain thousands of mites and eggs.
Crusted scabies can also appear:
- easy to crumble when touched
Crusted scabies usually develops in people with weakened immune systems. This includes people with HIV or AIDS, people who use steroids or certain medications (such as some for rheumatoid arthritis), or people who are undergoing chemotherapy.
The scabies mites can overpower the immune system more easily and multiply at a quicker rate. Crusted scabies spreads in the same way as normal scabies.
The best way to prevent getting scabies is to avoid direct skin-to-skin contact with a person known to have scabies. It’s also best to avoid unwashed clothing or bedding that’s been used by a person infested with scabies.
Scabies mites can live for three to four days after falling off your body, so you’ll want to take certain precautions to prevent another infestation. Make sure to wash all of the following in hot water that reaches 122°F (50°C):
These items should then be dried in the dryer on very high heat for at least 10 to 30 minutes.
Anything that can’t be washed should be thoroughly vacuumed. When you’re finished vacuuming, throw out the vacuum bag and thoroughly clean the vacuum with bleach and hot water.
Bleach and hot water can also be used to clean other surfaces that may contain scabies mites.
Anyone can get scabies. The mites don’t distinguish between sex, races, social classes, or income levels. Getting mites also doesn’t have anything to do with your level of personal hygiene or how often you bathe and shower. Skin is skin to a mite looking for a place to burrow.
People who live in close, crowded environments, like college dormitories, may be more likely to get scabies, too. That’s because the infestation is very contagious and can be shared through infested surfaces, like furniture.
The contagious factor is also why toddlers and young children may be more susceptible to scabies. The close contact in a childcare center is a fast way for the infestation to spread.
Older adults are more likely to develop crusted or Norwegian scabies, as are people who have a condition that weakens their immune system.
Your doctor will likely be able to diagnose scabies simply by performing a physical exam and inspecting the affected area of skin. In some cases, your doctor may want to confirm the diagnosis by removing a mite from the skin with a needle.
If a mite can’t easily be found, your doctor will scrape off a small section of skin to obtain a tissue sample. This sample will then be examined under a microscope to confirm the presence of scabies mites or their eggs.
A scabies ink test (or Burrow Ink Test) can help spot burrowed paths in your skin created by the mites. To do this test, your doctor can drop ink from a fountain pen onto an area of the skin that appears to be infested. They then wipe away the ink.
Any ink that fell into the burrowed tunnels will remain and be obvious to the naked eye. That’s a good indication you have an infestation.
Scabies and bed bugs feed off the human body. One does it from outside of your body (bed bugs), while the other does it from inside (scabies).
Scabies are microscopic mites that burrow into your skin to live and lay eggs.
Bed bugs are tiny as well, but you can see them without special viewing equipment. They come out at night‚ while you’re asleep, to feed on your blood. They then scurry away to your mattress, headboard, or other soft nearby furniture and hide.
A bed bug rash is typically just around the bite. It may look red and blotchy. You may even notice a bit of blood. Scabies often appears more widespread and makes scaly or lumpy bumps.
It’s possible to treat bed bugs and scabies, but both will likely require treating other people in your house, as well as your physical surroundings. Bed bugs are particularly hardy and difficult to kill. You may need to call a professional exterminator.
Scabies, on the other hand, don’t live long without human contact. Treatment, for your body and your home, is typically successful.
If you’re treating scabies, you can expect that the itching and burning caused by the rash will last for several weeks after treatment begins. That’s because the eggs and mite waste are still in your skin, even if the mites are dead.
Until your skin grows new layers, you may still have a rash and irritation.