Scabies Disease: Causes, Treatment, Symptoms, Meaning

Dr. Sneha Ganatra
November 17, 2020

Scabies is a highly contagious, itchy skin condition caused by a mite, namely, Sarcoptes scabiei. This skin condition is common and found across the globe. Closer home, there are reportedly over 1 million cases of scabies every year in India. Scabies causes a red rash to form on the skin as the mites make a home in the skin’s outer layers. Scabies may, at first, appear as another skin condition like acne. However, in case of scabies the itchiness is intense and relentless. Even as scabies is highly contagious and causes much itching, present-day scabies treatment is effective in eliminating both the mites and the eggs. So, once you pinpoint the skin condition, you can get treated faster.

Here is all you need to know about the causes, treatment, symptoms, and prevention of scabies.

What is scabies?

Scabies is an infestation of the skin caused by the itch mite. Since it is an infestation, it is not proper to call it scabies infection. Instead, the disease can be termed scabies infestation. In simple terms, the human skin has an allergic reaction to the mites, their eggs and their waste. Scabies treatment is aimed at undoing the effects of the mite invasion.

Scabies infestations may be categorised into 3 types: Typical, Nodular, and Norwegian. Of these, Norwegian or crusted scabies is a complication that may arise in persons having a compromised or weakened immune system. Norwegian scabies is distinct in appearance, as thick crusts of skin house a large amount (millions) of mites and eggs.

Read Also: Symptoms of Eczema

What causes scabies?

Scabies infestation is caused by Sarcoptes scabiei var. Hominis, the human itch mite. This mite is less than 0.5mm long and persons having a normal scabies infestation carry only 10-15 mites at a time. While you may be able to see a miniscule black dot with the naked eye, a microscope can reveal the mites, eggs, and waste matter. Scabies burrows may also be seen without a microscope as raised, discoloured lines. The female mite lays around 10-25 eggs inside a burrow.

Common areas for the scabies mite to live in include:

  • The area in between the fingers
  • The armpit
  • The insides of the elbow, wrist, or knee
  • The area around the waist or belt-line
  • The area around the breasts and genitals
  • The buttocks
  • The scalp, neck, face, palms, and soles of infants, young children, elderly, and immunocompromised

Scabies symptoms to look out for

Scabies symptoms may take as much as 4 to 8 weeks to develop in a person who has never suffered the infestation before. Note that during this period, an infested person can spread scabies meaning that even though the signs show up later, other persons around them are at risk. For a person who has had a previous infestation, scabies symptoms show up in a handful of days, generally 1 to 4 days.

The most common symptom of scabies is intense itching and rash. The itching is often worse at night, due to increased mite activity. The rash may show up at various parts of the body and at common sites such as the area in between the fingers and around the male genital area. Intense scratching can cause the skin to break and the sores to develop a bacterial infection, as in the case of impetigo.

The second symptom to look out for is tiny, track-like burrows on the skin. The female itch mite creates these tunnels, and these may appear as raised, discoloured lines or tiny bumps and blisters. You may find the burrows at the common sites where the scabies mite lives.

How does the scabies disease spread?

A scabies infestation spreads when the mites cross over from one person to the next. The mites only crawl, very slowly, and cannot jump or fly. A common mode of scabies spreading is skin-to-skin contact for a prolonged period. You will generally not get scabies with a quick handshake. Scabies may spread through items used by an infested person, such as clothes or towels. However, this is more common in case of crusted scabies.

You can’t get scabies from a pet, even though pets get scabies (mange), because the scabies mite in pets and humans is different. The one that affects pets cannot reproduce in human skin.

Scabies prevention methods

The best way to prevent scabies is to avoid skin-to-skin contact with a person who has the infestation. Circumstances to avoid include:

  • Sexual activity
  • Lingering in crowded places
  • Sending your child to a day-care centre

It is also recommended that you avoid infested objects. Note that the scabies mite can survive for only 2-4 days off the human body and dies when subjected to a temperature of 50°C for 10 minutes. So, washing and drying bedding, clothing, etc. and vacuuming objects are good ways of preventing scabies.

Medical cures for scabies

Scabies mites can live for 1-2 months on your skin and hence, you should look for scabies treatment, when you suspect an infestation. Your doctor will diagnose the condition as scabies by inspecting the rash, looking for the scabies mite, or performing the scabies ink test to trace burrows. Once scabies has been verified, treatment often takes the form of a scabicide. This medicine (cream or lotion) eliminates the mites, and sometimes the eggs too.

The scabicide is applied from neck down to the toes, in case of an adult. For children, the medicine is applied to the head and neck as well. The scabicide is left for the advised period, often 8 to 14 hours, and then washed off. Post treatment, you should be healed within a month.

However, if after 2-4 weeks post the last scabicide application, the itching continues or new burrows show up, you may need retreatment.

Doctors may also prescribe additional medicines in case of:

  • Extensive scabies
  • Crusted scabies
  • Relentless itching
  • Bacterial infections
  • Non-improvement after initial treatment

Since scabies symptoms take a while to appear, it is often recommended that entire households get treated for scabies.

Scabies treatment at home

Some home treatments that may help eliminate the scabies mite are:

  • Soaps with neem extract
  • Aloe vera
  • Clove oil
  • Tea tree oil

All in all, scabies is a skin infestation that causes much discomfort and early diagnosis helps check its spread. Today, the task of spotting symptoms and ruling out skin diseases is easier thanks to the Bajaj Finserv Health App. You can use it to find relevant doctors in your vicinity, book online consultations, share personal health records for better diagnosis, set medication reminders and more. You can even book a virtual appointment should your doctor want to do a visual check before you undergo scabies treatment. The Bajaj Finserv Health App gives you a way to make the most digital healthcare and to get medical advice at your fingertips, simply visit Google Play or the Apple App Store and download it today!