Scabies: Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention

Scabies: Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention


Scabies is a common skin condition that affects millions of people worldwide. Despite its prevalence, it remains a misunderstood and often stigmatized condition. This article aims to provide a comprehensive overview of scabies: symptoms, treatment and prevention. Understanding scabies is vital to promote early detection, proper management, and prevent its spread among communities.

What is Scabies?

Scabies is a highly contagious skin infestation caused by a microscopic mite known as Sarcoptes scabiei. This eight-legged parasite burrows into the skin’s top layer, laying eggs and triggering an allergic reaction in the host. As a result, affected individuals experience intense itching and develop characteristic rashes.

Scabies infestation is caused by the Sarcoptes scabiei mite, which is primarily transmitted through prolonged skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. The mite can also spread indirectly through contact with contaminated clothing, bedding, or furniture. Once the mite comes into contact with human skin, it can quickly find a suitable site to burrow and lay eggs, initiating the infestation cycle.


Causes of Scabies

Scabies is caused by infestation with the Sarcoptes scabiei mite. The primary modes of transmission include:

  1. Close Contact with Infested Individuals: The most common way scabies spreads is through direct, prolonged skin-to-skin contact with a person already infested with the mite. This often occurs during close personal contact, such as holding hands, hugging, or sexual activity.
  2. Indirect Transmission: Scabies mites can survive outside the human body for a limited period. Indirect transmission can occur through sharing clothing, towels, or bedding with an infested person. However, mites prefer human hosts and do not infest pets.
  3. Crowded and Congested Living Conditions: Scabies outbreaks are more prevalent in crowded environments, such as nursing homes, schools, and prisons, where close contact between individuals is common.
  4. Prolonged Physical Contact: Prolonged skin contact with infested furniture or other contaminated objects may lead to scabies infestation. However, the mite cannot survive for long without a human host.
  5. Mother-to-Child Transmission: In rare cases, scabies can be transmitted from an infested mother to her baby during breastfeeding or close skin-to-skin contact.

In the following sections of this article, we will delve into the symptoms, diagnosis, treatment options, and preventive measures for scabies, offering a comprehensive understanding of this common but often misunderstood skin condition.


Symptoms of Scabies

Scabies presents with a distinctive set of symptoms, primarily characterized by intense itching and skin rashes. The signs and symptoms of scabies may vary depending on the individual’s immune response, the severity of the infestation, and the presence of any complicating factors. It is essential to recognize these symptoms to seek timely medical attention and prevent further spread.

Classic Signs and Symptoms

  1. Intense Itching: The hallmark symptom of scabies is intense itching, especially at night. The itching is a result of the allergic reaction triggered by the mites’ burrowing and the eggs they lay in the skin.
  2. Skin Rashes: Scabies rashes often appear as small, red bumps or pimples, which may be scattered or clustered in groups. They typically develop in the areas where the mites have burrowed, such as between fingers, on wrists, elbows, armpits, waist, buttocks, and genital area.
  3. Burrow Tracks: The burrowing activity of the mites creates thin, wavy, and reddish-brown lines on the skin’s surface. These burrow tracks are often a key diagnostic feature for scabies.
  4. Worsening Symptoms: The itching and rashes tend to worsen over time if left untreated. Scratching the affected areas can lead to open sores and an increased risk of secondary bacterial infections.

Atypical Manifestations

While the classic signs and symptoms of scabies are well-defined, atypical manifestations can sometimes occur, leading to diagnostic challenges or delayed treatment.

  • Scabies in Children: Children, especially infants, may not experience the characteristic itching seen in adults. Instead, scabies in children may present as pustules or blisters, which can be mistaken for other skin conditions.
  • Scabies in Elderly Individuals: Older adults may have reduced sensitivity to itching, leading to a less pronounced itching sensation. The rashes may also appear more like eczema or other skin conditions, resulting in misdiagnosis.
  • Norwegian Scabies (Crusted Scabies): In rare cases, individuals with weakened immune systems may develop a severe form of scabies called crusted scabies or Norwegian scabies. This variant involves a massive infestation with thousands of mites, resulting in thick crusts of skin scales that contain numerous mites and eggs. Crusted scabies is highly contagious and requires aggressive treatment.
  • Delayed Onset of Symptoms: Some individuals may not experience itching or rashes until several weeks after the initial infestation. This delayed onset can lead to delayed diagnosis and further spread of the infestation.
  • Scabies Incognito: Scabies incognito refers to a condition where the use of topical steroids or other immunosuppressive medications masks the typical signs of scabies, making it challenging to diagnose.

Given the variations in symptom presentation, it is crucial to consult a healthcare professional for a proper diagnosis if scabies is suspected. A thorough evaluation, including a physical examination and, if necessary, microscopic examination of skin scrapings, can confirm the presence of scabies and guide appropriate treatment. Early detection and timely intervention are essential to managing scabies effectively and preventing its transmission to others.

Diagnosis of Scabies

Diagnosing scabies involves a combination of clinical evaluation and, in certain cases, microscopic examination. The process aims to identify the characteristic signs of scabies infestation, such as burrow tracks and skin rashes. Prompt and accurate diagnosis is crucial to initiate timely treatment and prevent the spread of scabies to others.

  1. Physical Examination:

During a physical examination, a healthcare professional, such as a dermatologist or primary care physician, will carefully assess the skin for typical signs and symptoms of scabies. The examination includes:

  1. Inspection of Skin Rashes: The healthcare provider will examine the affected areas of the skin to look for the characteristic rash of scabies. These rashes often appear as small red bumps or pimples, and they may be scattered or clustered in groups. The most common sites for scabies rashes include the spaces between fingers, wrists, elbows, armpits, waist, buttocks, and genital area.
  2. Identification of Burrow Tracks: The presence of burrow tracks is a key diagnostic feature of scabies. These burrows appear as thin, wavy, reddish-brown lines on the skin, representing the paths where the female mites have burrowed to lay their eggs. Burrow tracks are most commonly found on the hands, wrists, and finger webs.
  3. Assessing Itching Intensity: The healthcare provider will inquire about the severity and duration of itching experienced by the individual. Intense itching, especially at night, is a classic symptom of scabies and helps in narrowing down the diagnosis.
  4. Examination of Close Contacts: If one individual in a household or close community is suspected of having scabies, it is essential to examine other close contacts for any signs of infestation. This step is crucial to prevent further transmission.
  5. Microscopic Examination:

In cases where the diagnosis is not clear from the physical examination alone, a microscopic examination of skin scrapings or a skin biopsy may be performed to confirm the presence of scabies mites. This is especially useful in atypical or complicated cases of scabies.

  1. Skin Scrapings: The healthcare provider will gently scrape the surface of the skin at the site of the suspected infestation using a scalpel or a microscopic slide. The collected skin scrapings are then examined under a microscope to look for the presence of the scabies mite, its eggs, or faecal matter. This process is known as a potassium hydroxide (KOH) preparation.
  2. Skin Biopsy: In certain cases, a skin biopsy may be performed, where a small sample of the affected skin is taken for examination under a microscope. This helps to differentiate scabies from other skin conditions with similar symptoms.


Treatment Options for Scabies

Scabies is a treatable condition, and several effective treatment options are available to eliminate the scabies mites and alleviate the symptoms. The treatment approach depends on the severity of the infestation, age of the patient, and individual health considerations. It is essential to follow the prescribed treatment regimen diligently and complete the full course of treatment to ensure successful eradication of the mites and prevent recurrence.

  1. Topical Medications:

Topical medications are the first-line treatment for scabies and are applied directly to the skin. The most commonly used topical medication is Permethrin cream.

  1. Permethrin Cream: Permethrin is a synthetic insecticide that is highly effective against scabies mites. It works by paralyzing and killing the mites and their eggs. Permethrin cream is available in various concentrations and formulations, and it is safe for adults and children above the age of 2 months. It is generally applied to the entire body from the neck down, left on for 8-14 hours, and then washed off. A second application may be required after a week for some cases.
  2. Other Topical Medications: In cases where Permethrin is not suitable or well-tolerated, alternative topical medications like Crotamiton or Benzyl benzoate may be prescribed.
  3. Oral Medications:

Oral medications may be used in cases of severe or resistant scabies, as well as for specific populations like those with crusted scabies or immunocompromised individuals.

  1. Ivermectin: Ivermectin is an oral antiparasitic medication that can effectively kill scabies mites. It is usually prescribed as a single dose, followed by a second dose after one or two weeks, depending on the severity of the infestation. Ivermectin is particularly useful in cases where topical treatments may not be practical or effective.
  2. Other Prescription Treatments: In certain situations, other medications may be prescribed by healthcare professionals based on individual circumstances and treatment response.
  3. Home Remedies and Natural Treatments:

While prescription medications are the most effective way to treat scabies, some individuals may seek additional relief from itching and inflammation using home remedies and natural treatments. It is essential to note that these remedies should not be used as a substitute for prescribed medications, and their effectiveness may vary from person to person.

  1. Cool Compresses: Applying cool, damp compresses to the affected areas can help soothe itching and reduce inflammation.
  2. Aloe Vera Gel: Aloe vera has natural anti-inflammatory and soothing properties that may provide relief from itching.
  3. Tea Tree Oil: Tea tree oil possesses antiparasitic properties and is sometimes used as a natural remedy for scabies. However, it should be used with caution and diluted with a carrier oil to avoid skin irritation.
  4. Neem Oil: Neem oil has antimicrobial properties and is used in some cultures as a traditional remedy for scabies.


Scabies in Specific Populations

Scabies can affect individuals of all ages and backgrounds, but certain populations may experience unique challenges and considerations when dealing with this condition. Understanding how scabies manifests in specific groups is essential for timely diagnosis, appropriate treatment, and optimal management. Let’s explore scabies in children, pregnant women, and elderly individuals.

  1. Scabies in Children:

Scabies is relatively common in children, especially in school-aged children and those who attend daycare centers. Children may contract scabies through close contact with other infected children during play or while sharing personal items. The symptoms of scabies in children are generally similar to those in adults and include intense itching, rashes, and burrow tracks.

Treatment for Scabies in Children:

The treatment approach for scabies in children is similar to that of adults and usually involves topical medications such as Permethrin cream. However, parents and caregivers should consult a healthcare professional before using any medication on young children. The application of Permethrin or other topical treatments should be performed carefully, following the healthcare provider’s instructions.

Precautions for Infants:

Infants with scabies may have a different pattern of rash, which can include pustules and vesicles. To avoid complications, parents and caregivers should seek medical advice promptly if they suspect scabies in an infant.

  1. Scabies in Pregnant Women:

Scabies infestations during pregnancy can pose additional challenges due to concerns about medication safety and potential risks to the developing foetus. Pregnant women may experience similar scabies symptoms as non-pregnant individuals, including itching, rashes, and burrow tracks.

Treatment for Scabies in Pregnant Women:

The treatment of scabies in pregnant women requires careful consideration. Permethrin cream is generally considered safe during pregnancy, but healthcare providers may recommend other treatments based on individual circumstances. It is essential for pregnant women to discuss treatment options with their healthcare provider to ensure the safety of both the mother and the baby.

  1. Scabies in Elderly Individuals:

Elderly individuals, especially those living in long-term care facilities, may be at an increased risk of scabies infestation due to close living quarters and reduced mobility. Additionally, age-related changes in the skin may lead to atypical presentations of scabies, making diagnosis more challenging.

Treatment for Scabies in Elderly Individuals:

The treatment of scabies in elderly individuals is similar to that of other age groups and typically involves topical medications like Permethrin cream or oral medications like Ivermectin. Healthcare providers should consider any existing medical conditions and potential drug interactions before prescribing treatment.

Elderly Individuals and Crusted Scabies:

Crusted scabies (Norwegian scabies), a severe and highly contagious form of scabies, is more common in elderly individuals and those with weakened immune systems. Crusted scabies requires aggressive treatment and infection control measures due to its potential to spread rapidly.


Preventive Measures for Scabies

Scabies is a highly contagious skin infestation, and preventing its spread is crucial to protect oneself and others from this condition. Implementing preventive measures can significantly reduce the risk of scabies transmission and maintain good overall hygiene. Here are some important preventive measures to follow:

  1. Hygiene and Sanitation:

Maintaining good personal hygiene and cleanliness is essential to prevent scabies infestation. Regularly showering, washing hands thoroughly, and keeping the skin clean can help minimize the risk of acquiring scabies.

  1. Avoiding Close Contact with Infected Individuals:

Scabies is primarily transmitted through prolonged skin-to-skin contact with an infested person. To reduce the risk of transmission, avoid close contact with individuals known to have scabies. This includes refraining from holding hands, hugging, or engaging in intimate activities with an infested individual.

  1. Cleaning and Disinfecting Personal Belongings:

Scabies mites can survive outside the human body for a limited period. It is essential to clean and disinfect personal belongings, especially items that come into direct contact with the skin, to prevent reinfestation or transmission.

  1. Clothing and Bedding: Wash all clothing, bedding, and towels used by the infested individual in hot water (at least 50°C or 122°F) and dry them on high heat. This process helps kill any mites or eggs that may be present.
  2. Personal Items: Clean and disinfect personal items such as combs, brushes, and hair accessories. Soak these items in hot water or disinfectant for at least 10 minutes and rinse thoroughly.
  3. Furniture and Household Items: Vacuum upholstered furniture, carpets, and rugs to remove any mites that may have fallen off the infested person. You can also use a disinfectant spray on surfaces and objects that may have come into contact with the infested individual.
  4. Treatment of Close Contacts:

If someone in your household or close community is diagnosed with scabies, it is essential to treat all close contacts simultaneously. Even if close contacts do not have symptoms, they may still be carrying the mites and can transmit the infestation to others. Treating everyone at the same time can help prevent reinfestation and further spread of scabies.

  1. Household Members: Everyone living in the same household as the infested person should receive treatment, including children, adults, and elderly individuals.
  2. Close Social Contacts: Close friends, intimate partners, and individuals with frequent and prolonged contact with the infested person should also be treated as a precautionary measure.
  3. School or Workplace Contacts: If the infested individual attends school or works in close proximity to others, it is crucial to inform the school or workplace authorities so that appropriate measures can be taken to prevent transmission.


Complications of Scabies

While scabies is generally a manageable condition, certain complications can arise, especially if the infestation is not promptly treated or if the affected individual has certain risk factors. Here are some of the potential complications of scabies:

  1. Secondary Bacterial Infections:

One of the most common complications of scabies is the development of secondary bacterial infections. The intense itching caused by the mite’s burrowing and the individual’s scratching can break the skin’s protective barrier, making it susceptible to bacterial invasion. Bacteria, such as Staphylococcus aureus or Streptococcus pyogenes, can enter through open sores and cause infections like impetigo or cellulitis. These infections may lead to redness, swelling, warmth, and pain in the affected area and may require additional treatment with antibiotics.

  1. Norwegian Scabies (Crusted Scabies):

Norwegian scabies, also known as crusted scabies, is a severe and highly contagious form of scabies. It occurs when there is a massive infestation of scabies mites, with thousands to millions of mites present on the skin. In crusted scabies, the skin becomes thickened, crusty, and scaly, with large numbers of mites and eggs present. Crusted scabies is more commonly seen in individuals with weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV/AIDS, organ transplant recipients, or elderly individuals. Due to the high mite load, crusted scabies can spread easily to others, making infection control measures crucial.

  • Scabies and Immunocompromised Individuals:

Immunocompromised individuals, including those with HIV/AIDS, organ transplant recipients, and individuals undergoing chemotherapy, are at an increased risk of scabies complications. Their weakened immune systems may lead to a more severe and prolonged scabies infestation, making it challenging to eradicate the mites. In addition, they are more susceptible to crusted scabies, which can quickly progress to a life-threatening condition if left untreated.

Prevention and Management:

To prevent complications, it is essential to seek medical attention promptly if scabies is suspected. Early diagnosis and treatment can help minimize the risk of secondary bacterial infections and prevent the development of crusted scabies. Healthcare providers may recommend more aggressive treatment strategies, such as multiple courses of medications or longer treatment durations, for immunocompromised individuals and those with crusted scabies.


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Scabies
  1. What is scabies, and how is it transmitted? Scabies is a contagious skin infestation caused by the Sarcoptes scabiei mite. It spreads through prolonged skin-to-skin contact with an infested person. It can also be transmitted indirectly through contaminated clothing, bedding, or furniture.
  2. What are the common symptoms of scabies? The classic symptoms of scabies include intense itching, especially at night, red or pink rashes with small bumps, and burrow tracks on the skin. The most affected areas are between fingers, wrists, elbows, armpits, waist, buttocks, and genitals.
  3. Can scabies affect children? Yes, scabies can affect children of all ages, especially those attending daycare centers or schools. Children may present with similar symptoms to adults, but their rashes can appear differently, such as pustules or vesicles.
  4. Is scabies dangerous or life-threatening? Scabies itself is not dangerous or life-threatening, but complications can arise if left untreated. Secondary bacterial infections and crusted scabies (Norwegian scabies) are potential complications, particularly in immunocompromised individuals.
  5. What is crusted scabies (Norwegian scabies)? Crusted scabies is a severe form of scabies where there is a massive infestation of mites on the skin, resulting in thick crusts and scales. It is highly contagious and often seen in individuals with weakened immune systems.
  6. How is scabies diagnosed? Scabies is diagnosed through a physical examination by a healthcare professional. The characteristic rash and burrow tracks are key diagnostic features. In atypical cases, skin scrapings or biopsies may be examined under a microscope.
  7. What are the treatment options for scabies? The primary treatments for scabies are topical medications like Permethrin cream and oral medications like Ivermectin. Other prescription treatments may be used in specific cases. Home remedies can provide some relief, but they should not replace prescribed medications.
  8. Can pregnant women be treated for scabies? Pregnant women with scabies can be treated, but medication choices may be adjusted to ensure the safety of both the mother and the baby. Permethrin cream is generally considered safe during pregnancy, but healthcare providers should be consulted.
  9. How can scabies be prevented? Preventive measures for scabies include maintaining good hygiene and sanitation, avoiding close contact with infected individuals, cleaning and disinfecting personal belongings, and treating close contacts simultaneously.
  10. Can scabies recur after treatment? Scabies can recur if all close contacts are not treated simultaneously or if there is reinfestation from untreated items. It is essential to complete the full course of treatment and follow preventive measures to prevent recurrence.



Scabies is a common and treatable condition, but early detection and appropriate treatment are essential to prevent complications and further spread. By understanding the symptoms, treatment options, and preventive measures discussed in this guide, you can take proactive steps to manage scabies and promote skin health for yourself and your loved ones. If you suspect a scabies infestation, seek medical attention promptly for an accurate diagnosis and personalized treatment plan.

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