Scabies

What every parent needs to know about scabies

What is scabies?

Scabies is a very contagious skin condition caused by a tiny mite. This mite burrows into the skin, causing intense itching. Anyone can get scabies simply from close contact with an infected person, or even by sharing clothes or towels. The good news is that it is easily treated.

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What are the symptoms of scabies?

The most common scabies symptoms include itching and "burrow tracks." Itching is the most easily recognized symptom and is often worst at night.

Burrow tracks are the tracks the mites make as they burrow into the skin. They look like thin, irregular red lines and often show up in folds of skin, but can appear anywhere. In children, other common sites are the head, the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet.

How is scabies diagnosed?

Because the scabies rash can resemble other skin disorders like eczema or dermatitis, it's important to have a doctor make a diagnosis. He or she will examine the sores and look for signs of the mites. Often, the doctor will take a scraping of skin from the affected area and look at it under a microscope. Finding the mites and/or their eggs in the scraping leads to a positive diagnosis.

How to treat scabies?

Scabies treatment usually consists of a prescription cream or lotion applied all over the body. This cream is left on for at least 8 hours and up to 48 hours, after which it is washed off. At this point, all the mites should be dead, but itching may continue for another week or two.

For an especially bad case, the doctor might prescribe oral scabies medicine. Oral medication is also used for people with immune system problems, or if the topical cream did not work.

Do not try to treat scabies at home. There are no over-the-counter medications strong enough to kill this mite. However, oral antihistamines (e.g., Benadryl) or hydrocortisone creams can help to relieve the itching. Do not use hydrocortisone until after you have seen your doctor, though; it can make diagnosis difficult.

How to prevent the spread of scabies?

The best way to avoid catching scabies is to avoid contact with other people who have it. Because it is hard to know who has it, it is a good idea to teach your children not to share clothing, towels and other personal items like combs with anyone, including friends.

Once someone has caught scabies, the entire family and anyone else who comes into close contact with the infected person should be treated to avoid passing it back and forth.

Any clothes and bedding used by the infected person should be washed in hot water. If possible, wash everything the entire family has used in the four days prior to treatment. For items that cannot be washed, try placing the items in a plastic bag and storing the bag in the garage (or another out-of-the-way place) for a week or two; this should starve the mites and kill them.

Scabies is generally more uncomfortable than dangerous, although excessive scratching can lead to secondary bacterial infections, which may be more serious. With prompt diagnosis and treatment, however, scabies is fairly simple to eradicate.

By Melissa J Luther