What is scabies?

Scabies is a contagious skin disease caused by an insect that literally burrows under the skin. It is caused by a parasitic mite that burrows under the skin of humans where it feeds and lays eggs. The mite responsible for this condition is called Sarcoptes scabiei and belongs to the arachnid family, to which spiders, ticks and scorpions also belong. Mange is similar to mange, a skin disorder that affects dogs.

An extremely prickly itchy rash on the skin is a main symptom of scabies. A person with the disease may have visible but small inflamed blisters. You can even see the burrows, although they are much less numerous than the mites themselves. Sometimes scabies causes the skin to weep and crust, and due to intense itching and scratching, a secondary infection can occur. The mite that causes it is extremely small and invisible to the naked eye, only visible with a magnifying glass or microscope. Because the mites are so small, the condition is often misdiagnosed as a different type of rash.

Scabies most commonly affects the hands, wrists, and forearms. Mites prefer to inhabit folds of skin such as between fingers and folds on the arms. Mites also like to congregate in other areas of the body, such as the genitals, waistline, and breasts. Fortunately, scabies varies rarely on the face, although it is possible to occur anywhere on the body.

This disease is usually spread by skin-to-skin contact. However, it is also spread through sheets, clothing, and other materials that are in close contact with an infected body. Members of a household and crowded areas where people are together for an extended period of time, such as schools, shelters, and nursing homes, create the ideal environment for the spread of scabies. A person can be infected with the mites for more than a month before symptoms appear, although they can still pass them on to others.

The symptoms of scabies are caused by an allergic reaction to the eggs and waste of the mites. In a healthy person, the reaction is the body's way of developing antibodies and subsequently killing some of the mites. For those with compromised immune systems, the body cannot protect itself and the infestation can worsen.

Medical treatment usually involves topical medications in the form of lotions such as permethrin and lindane, although these are for adults only. These lotions are applied liberally from the neck down on a person infected with the mites. Other drugs, although still in the experimental phase, can be taken orally in a single dose. Scabies mites can stay alive without a host for about a week, so it's important to wash all bedding and clothing an infected person has come into contact with to prevent reinfestation.

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