Scabies: causes, symptoms and treatments

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Scabies is often seen as a disease from another era, which no longer exists nowadays. However, in the past number of years, many cases have been identified in men, women and children. There are apparently 62 new cases of scabies every day. 

What is scabies?

Scabies is a contagious disease which is passed on by direct, intimate and prolonged contact  with an infected person (generally within a couple of a family). Although not all cases are sexually transmitted, some people consider it to be a sexually transmitted infection. It affects people of all ages, genders and all socio-economic classes. It is estimated that 300 million people are affected by scabies worldwide.

A parasite is responsible for this disease: the sarcoptes scabiei hominis. It penetrates the superficial layer of the skin and contaminates it.

There are six types of scabies:

  • Typical scabies: the most common form, which is characterised by night time itching
  • Infant scabies
  • “Clean” scabies, which is difficult to diagnose
  • Profuse scabies, with skin lesions on the back
  • Hyperkeratotic (Norwegian) scabies which affects older people
  • Complicated scabies, when the lesions become infected

How can this disease be explained?

This skin disease is caused by a parasite, the sarcopte, which gets into the outer layers of the skin, in order to dig furrows where the female lays her eggs. In fact, only the females are pathogenic.

The presence of skin lesions due to scratching can lead to a diagnosis. Sometimes the furrows or grooves can be seen on the surface of the skin, as well as the precise place in which the mite is situated. It moves around the skin at a rate of several centimeters per hour when external temperatures are between 25 and 30°C. Below 20°C, it loses its mobility and dies within 12 to 24 hours.

How to recognise it?

Scabies takes time to manifest on the skin. In fact, the incubation period is two to three weeks. It is possible to be contaminated and not realise it until the itching starts a few weeks later.

Red lesions quickly appear on the skin, leading to a burning or itching sensation, also called pruritus. These sensations manifest mainly at night, and in the creases in the skin (between the fingers, the insides of the wrists or ankles, around the genitals, between the buttocks or in the armpits).

In order to soothe the itching, people affected by scabies tend to scratch, which in fact only makes things worse. This could even lead to more serious infections.

Scabies can also be diagnosed when a person notices little red grooves on the skin, which in fact marks out the parasite’s pathways under the skin.

How to get rid of scabies?

In the case of the symptoms of scabies, it is important to quickly consult a doctor for a clear diagnosis, in order to treat the problem as soon as possible. If the doctor confirms that it is in fact scabies, the only possible treatment is in fact to eradicate the parasite with the help of treatments, as the disease cannot heal by itself.

It is then necessary to take several precautions, in order to definitively eradicate the parasite, but also to ensure that none of your loved ones are contaminated:

  • Wash any laundry that is likely to have been contaminated at 60°C, and dry it at a high temperature. Delicate items which can’t be washed at such high temperatures should be put into an airtight plastic bag. In fact, the parasite cannot survive for more than 4 days without skin contact.
  • Inform anyone with whom you had prolonged and repeated physical contact, so that they can consult a doctor.
  • Clean the whole house with a vacuum cleaner, and throw the vacuum cleaner bag out immediately.
  • Avoid physical contact for three days after starting treatment. It is also recommended that you avoid sex throughout treatment, as scabies can be sexually transmitted.

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