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Scabies is a type of skin infection caused by mites known as Sarcoptes scabiei. The microscopic mites can live on your skin for months when left untreated. They can reproduce and lay burrowed eggs on your skin and cause an itchy, red rash to form. Having scabies is not usually serious, but it can be an annoying and embarrassing condition to have and it is contagious too. Scabies can easily spread through skin-to-skin contact or if you share things like bedding or clothing with other people. Scabies can be treated with anti-parasitic medicines which include certain lotions and creams.

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Scabies explained

Scabies is a common skin condition which makes the skin itchy and leads to rashes developing across the body. The condition is caused by tiny mites called Sarcoptes scabiei.

When a female gets on to a human’s skin, they burrow just beneath the skin and make a tunnel to deposit their eggs. When these eggs hatch, the mite larvae work their way to the surface of the skin, where they mature and can spread to other areas of the skin or even other peoples’ skin. These mites make your skin itchy if they are on you due to an allergic reaction to the mites, their eggs and their waste.

When you have scabies, the symptoms can develop on any part of your body, although they usually do not affect your head (it’s not unprecedented though). You can prevent scabies from laying eggs and spreading across your body if you treat the condition soon enough, and there are numerous anti-parasitic treatments you can acquire to effectively tackle the problem.

In similar fashion to head lice, anyone can get scabies and it has nothing to do with poor hygiene. Close contact with someone who already has scabies is how people tend to catch the condition themselves.

Scabies rashes and other symptoms

The most notable symptoms of scabies are intense itching, irregular burrow tracks and visible signs of a rash developing. When a mite burrows into your skin to lay eggs, this will leave a silvery line on your skin with a dot at one end.

Over time, a rash will appear which can spread across virtually your whole body. It can possibly take a while for the rash to be noticeably present (up to 8 weeks). The rash can appear anywhere, but often starts between the fingers (appearing as a patch of skin that’s more red than the rest of your hand). The rash turns into tiny red spots as it spreads. In adults and adolescents, scabies symptoms are most commonly found in the following areas of the body:

  • Between the fingers
  • Around the inside of the wrists
  • The inner elbows
  • The armpits
  • The breasts
  • Around the waist
  • Around the male genital area
  • The buttocks
  • The knees
  • On the soles of your feet

If an infant or young child has scabies, then they most often get symptoms of the condition in their scalp, the soles of their feet and the palms of their hands.

Complications caused by scabies

As unpleasant as it may look and feel, scabies is normally not a serious condition. It does, however, inevitably tempt those suffering with it to scratch their skin because of how much itchiness it causes. Vigorous scratching of your skin can break it up and allow a secondary bacterial infection to occur, such as impetigo.

A more severe form of scabies, known as crusted scabies or Norwegian scabies, can affect certain high-risk groups. These include:

  • Those with chronic health conditions that weaken the immune system, such as chronic leukaemia or HIV
  • People who are very ill, such as those in hospitals and nursing facilities
  • Elderly people in nursing homes

Crusted scabies tends to make affected skin crusty and scaly. It can affect large areas of the body, it’s difficult to treat and very contagious. In a typical case of scabies, a patient may have 10 to 15 mites on their body. But someone who has crusted scabies may be infested with millions of mites.

Is scabies contagious?

Scabies is a contagious infection which can spread through close physical contact with other people. Mites can jump from one person’s skin to another or they can be passed on via shared bedding, clothes or towels.

The condition is capable of spreading quickly if someone who catches scabies is living or working within a family, child care group, school class, nursing home or prison. Other places where people are potentially more vulnerable to scabies include university halls and dormitories.

Because of how contagious it is, doctors typically recommend that other people you have close contact with get treated as well if you catch scabies.

Scabies treatment

If you are showing symptoms of scabies, then the first thing to do is contact a doctor about this. A doctor can examine your skin to identify the presence of mites and they can recommend a cream or lotion that you apply over your whole body (except your head if mites aren’t there). The treatment will need to stay on your body for up to 12 hours before you wash it off.

There are numerous anti-parasitic medications that can be acquired for dealing with scabies. When you use the treatment on your body for the first time, it will typically need to be used again 1 week later.

While treating your scabies, you should also make sure you keep your bedding and clothing away from other people and wash them at 50 degrees centigrade or higher on the first day of treatment. Put clothing that cannot be washed in a sealed bag for 3 days until the mites die. Avoid close physical contact with others until you have completed the full course of your treatment.

Scabies in children

If your child gets scabies, then you should not be short on options when it comes to treatments as long as they are over the age of 2 months. You should take your child to a doctor as soon as possible once the symptoms are noticed. It’s more likely than with the adults that the head and neck will need treatment along with the rest of the body.

In most cases, children can have their scabies treated with a medicine called permethrin. If your child is aged 2-24 months, then permethrin may be usable, but only if your doctor says it’s ok to use it. If not, they will recommend a different treatment for your child. Safe options for treating scabies are more limited when treating scabies on babies less than 2 months old, so closely follow the advice given by your doctor. When you use a scabies treatment on a child, they are usually okay to go back to school after 24 hours have passed, although check with your doctor first if it’s okay to send them back that soon.