What Are Scabies
Merely saying the name scabies is enough to make anyone start itching and conjures up images of nasty people with poor hygiene standards, but what exactly is scabies, and how do people get it?
Scabies is a highly infectious skin infestation caused by small mites called Sarcoptes scabiei. The mites burrow into the skin and lay their eggs. Once the eggs hatch, the baby mites can be spread to other parts of the skin by causing an itchy sensation. When you scratch the skin, the scratching scraps the dermis and spreads the mites, which then burrow into the fresh new skin. Scabies is spread by direct, prolonged physical contact. In most cases, it is contracted via sexual activity with an infected person, but it is not the only way to become infected. Scabies mites can survive 24 to 36 hours away from the human body. However, prolonged skin contact is not the only way to contract scabies. It is possible to contract scabies from infected articles of clothing from second-hand stores or from wearing the clothing of someone who has the infection. Used bed linen and towels used more than once before washing are also high contagion points, although this is much less common. Scabies is commonly found worldwide and can affect anyone of any social class or hygiene standard. Pets do not cause human scabies infections, but children in preschools can contract the infection via a classmate who has the infection and children will then bring home the mite and spread it to other members of the family, who many then go on to take it into their workplaces and further potentially spread the highly infectious little mite.
What Are the Symptoms Of Scabies
The main symptoms of scabies are:
- intense itching of the skin, typically worse at night and after a hot bath or shower
- visible burrows on the skin between the fingers and in skin creases such as armpits and genitals
- a bumpy or pimple-like rash, which is often difficult to see
- small, clear, fluid-filled spots or lesions
- very itchy bumps on the scrotum or labia.
The rash scabies creates might not be as obvious as other skin rashes because the mites bury into the skin and live below the surface. In children, areas such as the face, scalp, palms, toes, and the feet’ soles are often affected. In the elderly, the rash may appear more widespread but lighter pink in colour and be mistaken for pressure area spots, thus going overlooked in the nursing home setting.
A scabies itch is irritating and may persist for two to three weeks after the infection has been effectively treated. The irritation is caused by the body’s immune system responding to the mites and may take time to settle down.
Symptoms usually develop two to four weeks after the initial infection. However, people who have previously been exposed may develop symptoms within 24 to 48 hours because the immune system takes less time to respond to a known pathogen previously encountered. Generally speaking, a person is considered to no longer be infectious 24 hours after treatment.
Diagnosis And Treatment Of Scabies
Diagnosis is based on identifying the burrows on the top of the skin. Sometimes, scabies is confirmed by taking a skin scraping and identifying the mites and eggs under a microscope. A simple, painless procedure your GP can conduct in his office.
Treatment involves the use of anti-parasitic medication. Permethrin is a skin cream with chemicals that kill the scabies eggs and mites. Scabies can be treated by killing the mites and their eggs with medication applied from the neck down and left on for eight hours. The mites can also be killed using oral medicines or applying a cream or lotion specifically used for treating scabies. Scabies treatments can be purchased from any pharmacy in Australia without a prescription. The first-choice treatment is permethrin 5 per cent cream (Lyclear Cream).
To Effectively Treat Scabies:
- You should follow the instructions that come with the individual treatment.
- If the pimples or spots become infected, antibiotics may be required.
Treatment Is Different For:
- babies and children under two years of age
- pregnant women
- people with sensitive skin
- elderly people
Check with your GP or pharmacist for suitable and recommended treatments for people in these groups.
Treat Clothing And Bedding
Any clothing, bedding or towels used in the last two days should be washed on a hot cycle and dried in the sun, tumble-dried or dry-cleaned. Items that cannot be washed should be sealed in an airtight plastic bag for 72 hours and placed in the sun. Turn to ensure all sides of the fabric have been given direct light and heat.
Treat (or inform) any sexual partners so they can treat themselves.
Treat all household members for scabies even if they do not show signs of having contracted the infection. A one-time clean sweep will prevent the cycle of constant reinfection due to the incubation period of initial contamination. If you only treat the obviously infected person, the others can re-infect the treated person when they become infectious.
If you have scabies, your sexual partners, all members of your household, and anyone you work closely with also needs to be treated.
Where To Get Help
- Your doctor / GP
- Local chemist or pharmacy