What is scabies?

Scabies is a highly contagious skin condition that occurs when a mite called sarcoptes burrows into the skin. The mites are microscopic, so the main sign of scabies is intense itching in the area where the mite burrows. Scabies is spread through close physical contact, so it is often spread in daycare centers, schools or nursing homes.

Although scabies are irritating, it is treatable with a medication that is applied directly to your skin. The medication kills the scabies and their eggs. Your doctor will often recommend it for anyone who has come into close contact with the infected person.

Causes of scabies

You can contract scabies through close physical contact with an infected person. A female mite will burrow beneath your skin and make a tunnel to deposit eggs. The mite matures and spreads to other areas of your skin or to others you are in contact with. Your body will produce an allergic reaction to the mites, their eggs and their waste and cause the intense itching.

Risk factors for scabies

Factors that increase your risk of developing scabies include:

  • Living in a nursing home - older people in nursing home are more likely to develop scabies because of the close contact with other people who may be infected
  • Being hospitalized - people who are very ill and hospitalized are more likely to become infected with scabies
  • Having a compromised immune system - people who have a weakened immune system are more likely to develop scabies

Symptoms of scabies

Symptoms of scabies include:

  • Severe itching that can intensify at night
  • Burrow tracks on the skin that may contain blisters or bumps
  • Tracks that appear in folds of skin such as between the fingers, in the armpits, on the inner elbows, around the waist, around the breasts or on the buttocks

If you have had scabies before, symptoms can appear in as little as a few days. If you have not had scabies, it may take as long as six weeks for it to appear. You are still contagious even if you are not showing any signs or symptoms of scabies.

Diagnosis of scabies

Your Mercy Health doctor can diagnose scabies during a physical exam. During the exam, your doctor will inspect the affected area of skin and remove a mite from the skin to examine it. If your doctor can’t find a mite, he or she may take a sample of tissue from the affected area to examine under a microscope. The microscopic evaluation can confirm the presence of mites or larvae.

Treatments for scabies

Scabies can be treated with prescription medications in the form of oral medications, ointments, creams or lotions. Your doctor will instruct you to apply the ointment, cream or lotion directly to the affected area of skin at night. Mites are most active at night. Topical treatment may need to be repeated seven days after the initial treatment. You may need up to four weeks of treatment.

Other medications may be needed to control your symptoms.

  • Antihistamines may be needed to manage itching
  • Antibiotics can treat an infection that may have developed
  • Steroids creams can be used to relieve itching or swelling

If you don’t see an improvement from more conservative treatment or you have scabies all over your body, you may need a more aggressive treatment in the form of an oral tablet. Because itching associated with scabies can last for as long as a month, it is important to be monitored by your doctor to ensure the mites are dying and you are healing as you should.

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