Scabies (SKAY-beez) is an itchy skin condition caused by mites that burrow under the skin.


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Memories of Camp

Kelly returned from summer camp with many stories and a red, itchy rash. The skin on her wrists and thighs and between her fingers was covered with pimple-like bumps and she could see small S-shaped burrows under her skin. Kelly's neighbor, who was a dermatologist (der-ma-TOL-o-jist), or skin doctor, took one look and suspected scabies. When Kelly found out, she was embarrassed. She felt dirty and unclean even though she took a shower every day. She felt better when her neighbor told her that scabies does not discriminate. It affects young and old, boys and girls, and those who shower once a week or every day. He told her she must have picked it up at camp but that it was easy to get rid of.

What Causes Scabies?

Scabies is a skin condition caused by mites that dig under the skin. Mites are eight-legged animals related to spiders, scorpions, and ticks. They are so tiny that they require a microscope to be seen. The scientific name for the scabies mite, or "itch mite," is Sarcoptes scabiei. Its relatives cause mange (MAYNJ), an inflammation of the skin that results in hair loss, in dogs, pigs, horses, and cows.

Scabies is a common, contagious * skin condition that passes easily from person to person. Outbreaks of scabies, in which many people get infested at once, can occur in places like nursing homes, childcare centers, and dormitories. The scabies mite cannot live very long away from the body. It can be spread by skin-to-skin contact or by clothing or bedding that has been used very recently by an infested person. Kelly acquired scabies from someone at camp, perhaps from borrowing a towel.

When Kelly first came into contact with the mites, females full of eggs burrowed under her skin and laid eggs. For a person who has never had scabies, it usually takes two to six weeks to develop symptoms, meaning itching and a rash, which is an allergic reaction to the mites. People who have had scabies before usually react within days.

How Is Scabies Diagnosed and Treated?

Kelly's neighbor, the dermatologist, suspected she had scabies based on her intense itching, where the rash was located on her body, and how the rash looked. To make sure, he scraped at the skin between her fingers. He put the scrapings on a slide and when he looked at them with a microscope, he saw several mites and eggs.

* contagious (kon-TAY-jes) means transmittable from one person to another.

The itch mite Sarcoptes scabiei responsible for scabies. Arthur M. Siegelman, Visuals Unlimited
The itch mite Sarcoptes scabiei responsible for scabies.
Arthur M. Siegelman, Visuals Unlimited

Prescription drugs called scabicides (SKAY-bi-sydz), such as permethrin (per-METH-rin) and lindane (LIN-dayn), are usually used to kill scabies mites and eggs. Because scabies is so contagious, Kelly's neighbor instructed the whole family to bathe, then apply the scabicide lotion all over the body from the chin to the toes, and to wash all the recently used clothes, bedding, and towels in hot water. They were instructed to repeat the process in a week. The dermatologist also gave Kelly an antibiotic * ointment because she had some skin infections caused by scratching. Four weeks later, Kelly's skin was back to normal.

* antibiotics (an-ty-by-OT-iks) are drugs that kill bacteria.

See also
Parasitic Diseases
Skin Conditions



Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 100 Clifton Road N.E., Bldg. 1, SSB249, MS A34, Atlanta, GA 30333. This U.S. agency helps control communicable, carrier-borne, and occupational diseases and prevent disease, injury, and disability. A fact sheet about scabies is available on its website.
Telephone 404-639-3534

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