A scabies infestation is caused by a microscopic, eight-legged creature called Sarcoptes scabiei var. hominis, also known as the "human itch mite." While easily treated, scabies is highly transmissible and results in severe itching and a pimply rash on certain areas of the body. Here's how you get scabies--and how it is treated.
Where Does Scabies Come From?
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the scabies mite does not choose hosts based on race, age or social standing. Scabies infestations are more commonly found in populations that live close together under crowded conditions, such as nursing home facilities and prisons. However, when scabies infest adults, it is typically the result of an intimate encounter. To be passed from one human to another, the scabies mite must transverse slowly. This happens through sustained skin-to-skin contact. The CDC classifies scabies as a sexually transmitted disease.
Males and Females
A scabies infestation begins with one impregnated scabies mite who finds a place on the skin in which to burrow and lay her eggs for the duration of her life, which is usually one to two months. The scabies mite has four life stages: egg, larva, nymph and adult. Male scabies mites live in shallow pits on the human skin, existing long enough to impregnate other females. There may only be a sum total of 10 to 15 mite burrows on the skin during an infestation.
Identifying the Burrow
Often, your doctor will be able to identify the presence of scabies by finding one of her burrows, which have a unique serpentine pattern. The scabies mite prefers certain parts of the human body in which to make a habitat. Choice spots include the webbing between the fingers, the armpits and shoulder blades, around the waist, inside the elbows and wrists, around the breasts or male genital area, on the buttocks or soles of the feet. The skin around the burrow may be scraped and visualized under a microscope to confirm the mite's presence.
Scabies infestations must be killed with prescription medications, most commonly permethrin or crotamiton. These may go by the trade names Elimite, Acticin or Eurax and are applied topically. After the medication is left on for at least eight hours, it can then be washed off. However, severe itching--an allergic response to the presence of the mites' feces--may persist for weeks.
Not only does the scabies' human host need to be treated, the environment must be treated as well. All clothing, bedding towels and other personal effects must be washed in hot soapy water and dried on high heat. Items that cannot be washed can be stored in plastic containers or bags and placed in a garage or storage shed for up to two weeks.