The scabies mite has been infecting humans for thousands of years; in fact, it can't live for long without its human host. Scabies in humans is a contagious skin condition caused by the parasitic scabies mite, which burrows under the skin and lays its eggs. The scabies mite is microscopic, making it impossible to detect the mite before the symptoms start. Symptoms include intense itching and a rash. Fortunately, treatment is available.
Prolonged close skin contact with a person who has scabies is the predominant way of getting scabies. A handshake is not usually sufficient contact, for example. An infestation starts with a female mite burrowing under your skin. The female lays eggs that become adult mites in about seven to eight days. Scabies symptoms --severe itching and a pimple-like rash -- may take between a few days to six weeks to develop, depending on a person's sensitivity. Greek philosopher Aristotle described scabies as "lice in the flesh," but it was not until the 19th century that Austrian dermatologist Ferdinand Ritter von Hebra identified the nature of the scabies mite and its parasitic infection.
How Scabies Spreads
Scabies infection is common among human populations globally, although it is more prevalent in regions where people live in empoverished, crowded and unsanitary conditions without sufficient water to take care of personal hygiene. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out that the elderly, the disabled and people with weak immune systems, are more likely to suffer from a severe form of scabies called crusted or Norwegian scabies. Although animals do get a form of scabies called sarcoptic mange, the CDC states that animal mites are most unlikely to cause an infection in a human.
In the Household
Scabies mites live in bedding, towels and clothing, but cannot survive for more than a few days away from its food source -- human skin. Washing fabric items is an important part of preventing reinfection as the mite can't survive a hot wash-and-dry cycle. Dry cleaning also kills mites. When washing or dry cleaning isn't an option, sealing fabrics in a plastic bag for three days eliminates them.
CDC advises that you always get a medical diagnosis and treatment for scabies. Also, the medication needed to treat it, called a scabicide, is only available by prescription. Typically, this is permethrin lotion or cream applied to the skin. Permethrin is an insecticide, but it is diluted for treating scabies in humans. If you live with other people, everyone in the household needs to be treated at the same time, to prevent spread and reinfestation.
- Stanford University: Scabies
- CDC: Scabies FAQs
- International Journal of Dermatology: Gioban Cosimo Bonomo (1663-1696): Discoverer of the Etiology of Scabies
- American Society for Microbiology:Problems in Diagnosing Scabies, a Global Disease in Human and Animal Populations
- Whonamedit?: Ferdinand Ritter von Hebra
Based in London, Eleanor McKenzie has been writing lifestyle-related books and articles since 1998. Her articles have appeared in the "Palm Beach Times" and she is the author of numerous books published by Hamlyn U.K., including "Healing Reiki" and "Pilates System." She holds a Master of Arts in informational studies from London University.