Scabies is a contagious and itchy skin condition caused by microscopic mites that burrow into the skin.
An allergic reaction and rash usually appear within a few weeks of the mite burrowing into the skin.
Scabies mites, called Sarciotes scabiei, can be picked up through having sex, close contact with another person or sharing bedding, clothes or towels.
How does a person get scabies?
In most cases, scabies develops after close, prolonged contact with another person. Scabies can easily be spread between sexual partners and members of the same household. Scabies-causing mites can be scratched off the skin and can cause an infestation in another person. Infestation may also occur by sharing clothing, towels, and bedding - mites can live in bedding for up to 24 hours or more.
What are the symptoms of scabies?
The main symptoms of scabies are:
- Itching: Scabies causes severe itching, which is often so bad that it keeps people awake at night. The itching is caused as the female mite burrows into the skin, lays eggs, and produces toxins that cause allergic reactions.
- Rash: Small red bumps (resembling tiny bites or pimples) form on the skin. The most common areas for scabies to develop on the body are warmer sites such as skin folds, areas where clothing is tight, near the belt line or buttocks, on the penis, and around the breasts.
- Mite tunnels or burrows: These cause short lines on the skin up to a centimetre long.
- Scratching: Excessive scratching may lead to bacterial infections of the skin in people who have scabies.
- Worsening of other skin conditions: Scabies can aggravate conditions like eczema or psoriasis.
How is scabies diagnosed?
A doctor can look at the rash on your skin to determine whether you have scabies. A skin scraping may be taken to look for mites, eggs, or mite faecal matter to confirm the diagnosis.
How is scabies treated?
Scabies is treated with a lotion or cream that is applied to the body – some are applied from the neck down, whilst others need to also be applied to the scalp and face too. Follow the specific treatment instructions about how to apply it and how long to leave it on the skin. The person with scabies should put on clean clothes. All clothing, bedding, and towels used by the person in the preceding 24 hours should be washed in hot water and dried in a hot dryer. Seven days after the first treatment, a second treatment of the body with the same treatment is usually necessary. Medication may be prescribed to relieve itching. Although itching may continue for two to three weeks, the itching does not mean that the infestation is still active. About 24-48 hours after effective treatment, no new burrows or rashes should appear.
Anyone who is diagnosed with scabies should be treated. In addition, their sexual partners in the preceding month and anyone who has close, prolonged contact with the infested person should also be treated. If all family members need to be treated, everyone should receive treatment at the same time to prevent re-infestation.