Scabies is an itchy skin condition caused by an allergic reaction by the body to an infestation by a microscopic mite known as Sarcoptes scabiei or the itch mite. The female mite burrows under the skin, creating a tunnel by feeding on the skin. It then proceeds to hatch its eggs there several times a day for close to two months. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae move to the surface of the skin where they mature in a matter of days and spread to other areas of the skin and start the egg laying process all over again. It is this burrowing and tunnelling action and their waste material that causes itching.
The mite prefers warm and moist areas and in infants and younger children, prefers to burrow on the scalp, face, neck, hand palms and soles of feet. In older children, however, the infestation areas vary and are wider and include the armpits, inner elbow, the breast line, buttocks, knees, waistline, wrist, foot soles, around the male genitalia and shoulder blades.
Spread, signs and symptoms
Scabies is highly contagious and easily spreads through physical contact (as little as a handshake or a hug is enough), making it easy for one infected person to spread it to an entire family. It can also spread easily among groups or crowded areas such as children’s daycare, classrooms, hospitals and nursing homes. Not only can sharing of clothing or bedding with an infected person (the mite can survive outside its human host for two to three days) spread the mite but sexual intercourse can also lead to the same.
In the event of a first time infection it usually takes six weeks for any signs and symptoms to manifest. However, if it’s a recurring condition, then the manifestation takes a shorter period of time.
Signs and symptoms to watch out for if one suspects infection include:
- A rash on the scalp, arms and soles of feet especially in infants and young children
- Incessant itching especially at night or after a warm bath leading to blisters or pimples on the infected areas.
- Thin bumpy burrows under the skin’s surface especially on the hands and soles and between fingers and toes.
The itching is dangerous due to its severe nature, which can lead to the breaking of the skin allowing a secondary bacterial skin infection condition known as impetigo. Additionally, children and people suffering from weakened immune systems such as the elderly or those with HIV/AIDS and leukemia are prone to a more severe form of scabies known as crusted scabies. It not only covers the entire body in scale-like spots, but also is also harder to treat.
Considering the contagious nature of scabies, it is recommended that the whole family or affected family be treated for the disease in the event one person is found to have the infection. Scabies cannot be treated with over the counter medication and it is recommended you visit a doctor who will then scrape off a part of the skin and examine it for mites so as to rule out other skin diseases such as dermatitis or eczema.
A doctor will then prescribe a topical cream, lotion or oral medication, and in the event of impetigo, antibiotics.
The itching usually does not go away immediately and may even last up to a week after treatment commences. During that time, it is recommended that the entire family cut their fingernails as the itching can spread the mites to other areas of the skin and people. The treatment may need to be repeated after one or two weeks to ensure no mite survives.
Prevention of scabies
To prevent scabies from recurring, it is recommended that:
- You wash all suspected clothes, bedding and sheets in hot water
- Avoid sharing bedding, clothes and linen with infected persons
- Treat everyone in the family if one person is found to have the disease
- Vacuum or dust and clean the entire house, mattresses, cushions and other areas where the mite may thrive.
Published in July 2016