What is scabies?

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Scabies is a skin infestation by a type of mite called Sarcoptes scabiei. The mite lives in the skin and burrows through it as it moves around and lays eggs.

The condition can be got by being in close contact with an infected person such as a sexual partner or someone in the same household. It is not very likely to catch scabies by merely shaking hands, or from clothes, towels, and bedding.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptom is itching. A rash can also occur, looking like tiny insect bites of spots. Scratching may cause crusty sores to appear. In small children, the palms and soles can be involved with little pus filled rashes. Involvement of the genital area in boys is characteristic. The itching may be worse at night.

The mites are not easily visible, and so are the burrows they make under the skin and the eggs they lay in them. Magnifying lenses are often needed.

People with a weak immune system, such as elderly people and people with HIV, can get a more serious type of scabies, called crusted scabies or Norwegian scabies. The rash looks scaly or crusty and covers a much larger area of skin than ordinary scabies.

What treatments work?

Treatment is needed for the affected individual and all family members or close contacts, whether they have the symptoms or not. The treatment usually comes as creams or lotions that are applied on the skin. They include permethrin cream, malathion, benzyl benzoate, and ivermectin.

The itching may still go on for a few weeks after treatment has killed the mites, while the skin heals. There are drugs which can help with this.

It is important to wash all bedding and clothes in hot water and dry them in a dryer on high heat. Any items that cannot be washed should be placed in a sealed bag for one week.