What is scabies?
Scabies is a highly contagious skin infection which causes intense itching all over the body.
The scabies mite burrows or eats its way into the skin and lay eggs which hatch. These new mites then perpetuate the infection – as the scabies mites’ eggs hatch, the skin produces an allergic reaction.
Scabies is very common, but occurs more in children and young adult women.
Factors like the environment and time of year can also contribute towards the development of the condition, with higher cases of scabies being reported in the UK during the winter (when people spend long periods indoors in close proximity with others) and also in places like schools and nursing homes where prolonged close contact is inevitable.
Anyone can get scabies, regardless of age or standard of personal hygiene. How scabies differs from other skin infections such as ringworm is that the infection only occurs in humans.
Scabies causes intense itching (which can be worse at night or after a hot bath or shower).
It also causes red blotchy marks on the skin, and little lines where the mite has burrowed into the skin. The mites like to hatch their eggs in skin creases and folds, between the fingers, under the nails, and in the male genitalia region. However, in infants and children, the face, scalp, soles of the feet and palms can also become infected.
The symptoms of scabies usually begin to appear about two to six weeks after the mites’ infestation.
The development of scabies is not necessarily related to poor living conditions or poor personal hygiene. People get the infection through prolonged close physical contact with others, such as: hand holding, sexual intercourse, sharing a bed with another person.
If you are suffering from the aforementioned symptoms then make an appointment with your GP. He or she will make a diagnosis of scabies by your description of your symptoms and also by studying your skin.
A sample of your skin may be gently scraped from your infected area, for examination purposes.
An ink test may also be used, which highlights the areas where the mites have burrowed into your skin – this becomes evident when the ink is wiped away from the itchy area with an alcohol pad, and leaves a dark line.
You cannot wash away scabies, but you can treat the condition with creams and lotions which your GP will prescribe for you. These contain an insecticide that kills the scabies mites.
With most creams and lotions you will be have to apply the cream all over your body, and then repeat the treatment seven days later, so that any eggs that have hatched in the meantime also get killed by the insecticide.
You will also be given a cream or an anti-histamine tablet to relieve the itching and which may also help you to sleep at night.
It is also very important that other members of the household, or sexual partners, are treated, even if they don’t have the symptoms of scabies – to reduce the risk of you becoming infected again.
It is a good idea to boil wash (at more than 50 degrees centigrade) household linen, bed linen, clothing and towels to ensure that any mites that have survived on these items are killed.
Advice & Support
Scabies is a very common infection that is easily treated and you should not be embarrassed about asking for advice about it. As well as from your GP, you can also get advice from your local sexual health clinic and/or genitourinary clinic.
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