Scabies (Scabies) Revealed: Symptoms, Infection Risks and Treatment

Lately you read more and more about it: scabies has been found in students or in patients in a hospital. That, of course, raises a lot of questions. What exactly is scabies and how can you get it? Does it have to do with hygiene or is scabies an STD? We answer these and other questions here.

What is Scabies?

Scabies is a skin disease and is also called scabies. If you have scabies, you will probably notice that you get a lot of itching. That itching is especially present when you are warm, which is the case at night, for example.

Scabies is caused by the scabies mite. That is a parasite, a bug that literally gets under your skin and digs holes. The animal looks like a miniscule spider and is therefore very small (approx. 0.2 – 0.4 mm). In addition to digging tunnels under the epidermis, the female scabies mites also lay eggs under the skin.

The itching is mainly caused by your skin resisting this invader, due to an allergic reaction caused by the faeces, eggs and other substances that the mange mite brings with it.

What are the symptoms?

Itching is one of the main symptoms of scabies. But it's not the only thing you can tell you have it. Due to the allergic reaction caused by the mange mite, you can also suffer from bumps, blisters, redness and scaling. As a result, it is sometimes confused with other skin conditions (such as eczema). In addition, the tunnels dug by the scabies mite are often visible. These are about 1 cm long.

However, it can also happen that there are no external characteristics or that you do not experience itching. This is especially the case in the first weeks of infection, in which case it may not be immediately clear that you have scabies.

How striking is the contamination?

If you become infected for the first time, it is not immediately visible or palpable. That makes it difficult to take immediate action or find out where you contracted the infection. Subconsciously you can then infect others.

If you have not had scabies before, you will not notice that you have it until 2 to 6 weeks after infection (incubation period). This can be visible on your hands, for example, where the corridors and other skin abnormalities can be seen. In addition, the complaints can often be seen and felt between the fingers, on the wrists and ankles, in the armpits and back of the knees, and under the breasts. Men also often suffer from the penis and scrotum and in women it is often visible around the nipples. Scabies is generally not present on the face of adults, but it may be the case in children.

Is scabies contagious?

Scabies is certainly contagious, but it is not the case that you have a high chance of infection after a cursory encounter with a person. In general, the infection appears to occur after a contact of at least fifteen minutes, which also involves prolonged or intensive contact. In addition to transmission through human contact, it is also possible to become infected by, for example, sleeping on contaminated sheets or drying yourself with a contaminated towel.

Shaking hands with someone who has scabies will therefore have no consequences for you. But if you sleep in a bed that has not been changed or aired, there is a good chance that you will also become infected.

Is scabies an STD?

Scabies is not covered sexually transmitted diseases (STD), but you can catch or transfer it during sex. This has to do with the fact that there is physical contact (skin to skin contact) of at least 15 minutes, which gives the parasite the opportunity to 'overflow' from one body to the other. In addition, there is a good chance that any bedding will also be contaminated. During intensive physical contact, the risk of infection is therefore high.

Where does scabies commonly occur?

Scabies is common among students and specifically in student houses, and has been increasing in recent years. These are often houses with many people who have a lot of (physical) contact with each other and can easily (re)infect each other. This also makes the treatment more difficult, because the treatment must be carried out jointly and properly in one go.

It is also possible that it will appear in, for example, nursing homes, hospitals and prisons. Many people also live there together and in addition, the elderly or sick often have less resistance, which makes them sometimes extra sensitive to the seriousness of infection. Medication use can play a role in this.

Incidentally, everyone can contract scabies - including children - and it is certainly not the case that only students become infected.

How can you avoid getting scabies?

You may think that it will not happen to you that you get infected with scabies, because you are very careful about your personal hygiene. That is of course an excellent aim. However, this cannot prevent you from becoming infected, because, as mentioned, anyone with scabies can in principle become infected.

You can't see the parasite with the naked eye, so you can't tell if the bedding of the bed you're sleeping in is infected. It is advisable to wash and air bedding regularly, and to change someone else's bed before you start sleeping in it yourself. If it is known that someone has scabies, it is important that you avoid close physical contact with this person.

Scabies treatment

Although scabies is a very annoying condition, it is not dangerous. Moreover, it is relatively easy to fix, but you have to put in some effort.

The two most common means to treat scabies are a cream (permethrin) or tablets (ivermectin). Permethrin is the preferred first treatment. A number of steps must be carried out accurately, including applying the entire body (except mucous membranes) from the edge of the jaw downwards and leaving the cream on the skin for 8 to 12 hours.

It is also important that bed linen, towels and clothing that have been worn for three days before treatment must be washed at 60 degrees. Garments that cannot be washed at 60 degrees should be stored in a tightly sealed bag for three days.

After the cream has been on the skin for 8 to 12 hours, it is important to wash yourself well and put on clean clothes. It is often advised to repeat the treatment with permethrin after 7 to 14 days.

Finally, it is very important that bedmates and housemates treat themselves at the same time as you, regardless of whether they show signs of infection.

You can go this page of the GGD read more about the treatment of scabies.

How long does it take for a scabies treatment to work?

If the treatment is carried out accurately by all persons involved, the scabies mites should be completely gone. This accuracy applies not only to applying the cream (or taking the tablets), but also to all precautions with regard to washing and airing bedding, clothing and towels.

The complaints can then decrease after a few days, but it often happens that the itching persists for a few weeks. This is then due to a hypersensitivity reaction of the skin caused by the dead scabies mites. In some cases this can even be the case for months.

In addition, it is good to mention that the itching caused by scabies can get worse after treatment. This will take a few weeks at most. It is recommended to contact your doctor if the itching gets worse more than 2 weeks after the treatment, if you still have itching after 4 weeks after the treatment or if you get new spots on the skin after the treatment.

Having scabies is no cause for shame

Sometimes you can find out where you contracted the scabies infestation. But sometimes not. Because, for example, if you spent the night somewhere, you cannot always know who slept in that bed before you. And sometimes it is just very difficult to trace the source of the contamination. But the last thing you should do is keep walking around complaining because you're ashamed of having it. That will not help you get rid of the itching and blisters. And it remains just as contagious. So find out in your immediate environment whether more people have the same experience or symptoms, so that you can fight scabies together.