What Is Scabies?
Scabies occurs when mites of the species Sarcoptes scabiei burrow into the skin, causing a troubling and relentless itching. The itching may persist for about two weeks even if all of the mites are killed. If an individual is known to have scabies and no previous skin-to-skin contact has occurred with others, prevention can usually be accomplished by avoiding direct skin contact to avoid transmitting the mites. It is also advisable to avoid contact with bedding, clothing, and sometimes even furniture that has been used by the infested person.
Among young people, skin-to-skin transmission most often occurs during sexual contact, so scabies can be considered a form of sexually transmitted disease. However, other forms of close contact such as hugging may spread the disease so it is not exclusively transmitted by sex. Casual contact such as shaking hands usually will not result in transmission of the mites
How Can I Get Rid of Scabies in My House?
If a household member becomes infested with scabies, the goal of treatment (for example, with a mite-killer such as permethrin [Elimite] or lindane [Kwell]) is also to prevent infestation of household contacts. Therefore, treatment is usually recommended for all close contacts of the affected person. The treatment should occur for the affected individual and his/her close contacts at the same time in order to prevent re-exposure. Permethrin can be used on infants 2 months and older; lindane is not recommended for use in children.
While contact with bed linens and surfaces may not always be sufficient to spread the infestation, bed linens and clothing worn or used by an affected person in the three days prior to treatment should be washed in hot water and dried using the hottest dryer cycle. Alternatively, items may be dry-cleaned. Since mites usually cannot survive for more than two to three days away from human skin, things the infected person has touched such as furniture or other items that cannot be washed can be enclosed in plastic bags for several days.
How Is Scabies Spread?
The problem with this approach and the reason that many people catch scabies is that a person who is infested for the first time may not have itching or symptoms for up to two months, yet they are able to transmit scabies during this period of no symptoms. Spread of scabies among individuals can also occur when a person is infested and has symptoms but is not aware that scabies is the cause. Particularly early on in the course of the infestation, scabies may be misdiagnosed as pimples or mosquito bites.
Norwegian, or crusted, scabies is less common but is a particularly severe form of the condition that requires more stringent prevention methods, including thorough cleaning of all rooms used by the affected person.
The answer to the question about scabies prevention is as follows: Yes, it is possible to treat and to prevent scabies infections. However, sometimes even the best prevention methods may fail unless strict preventive methods are followed.
Medically reviewed by Avrom Simon, MD; Board Certified Preventative Medicine with Subspecialty in Occupational Medicine
Chosidow, O. "Clinical practices. Scabies." N Engl J Med 354 (2006): 1718.