Scabies spreads through contact, not because of a lack of personal hygiene. But doctors say it can be difficult to inform people they have mites because of the stigma associated with them.
“I think a common misconception is that only people who are filthy or dirty get scabies,” says Robin P. Gehris, MD, a specialist in pediatric dermatology at Riverchase Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery in Estero, Florida. “Even royalty, with the right exposure, can get scabies.”
“It doesn’t present with symptoms immediately,” says Dr. Gehris. “Unless you’ve had it before, it takes about a month between when the mites set up shop and when it shows up in your skin.”
What It Feels Like to Have Scabies: Signs and Symptoms
Scabies typically starts with itching and a pimple-like rash, often in areas around your wrists, finger webs, elbows, armpits, waist, knees, ankles, or groin. Sex is a common route of infection.
One of scabies’ more distinctive effects happens when it worsens.
“It keeps people up at night — they don’t sleep well, and mentally they get very anxious,” says Adam Goldstein, MD, MPH, a professor of family medicine at the UNC School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
If you think you may have scabies, a trip to your primary care doctor or dermatologist will often resolve the mystery. Under a microscope, a slide with a sample from the irritated area will typically show the mites.
Solve the Problem: Scabies Treatment That Works
“Primary care doctors can absolutely treat it, but sometimes it doesn’t present as straightforward, so you might end up seeing a specialist,” says Beth Goldstein, MD, a dermatologist in private practice in Chapel Hill. (Dr. Beth Goldstein and Dr. Adam Goldstein have coauthored guides for physicians on recognizing and treating scabies.)
“I have had people with absolutely no rash who are just itchy,” says Amy Kassouf, MD, a dermatologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “It’s really an allergic reaction to the mite that makes you so itchy. Not everyone shows that as a rash.”
While the itching may be unpleasant, treating scabies is usually fairly straightforward, as long as you follow the recommended steps. When you go to your doctor for scabies treatment, they may recommend an antihistamine and permethrin (Elimite), which is applied to the skin to kill the mites. Usually, you apply it at bedtime.
“People can itch even if treated, but they will feel progressively better,” says Beth Goldstein.
Two applications of permethrin are recommended. Five to seven days after the first treatment, you’ll need a second treatment with permethrin to kill off mites that have hatched in the interim. This second step is important to prevent having to start the treatment cycle again.
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Getting the Entire Household Scabies Free
In families or households where one person has scabies, you’ll need to be proactive about treating everyone for scabies — even if they don’t have symptoms. That goes for babysitters or frequent visitors like grandparents, too.
“When one family member in a household gets diagnosed, in order to effectively treat that household, you have to treat everyone who lives there — not just the people who have rashes or are itchy,” says Gehris.
“If you don’t successfully treat it, it’s going to continue,” says Adam Goldstein.
That’s especially important for families to keep in mind. In addition to treating the person with scabies, the bedding, clothes, and towels need to be washed in hot water and dried on a hot setting (or dry-cleaned) to rid them of the parasites.
Items that cannot be washed should be sealed in a plastic bag for 72 hours or more to kill the mites. This effectively decontaminates things like toys and other objects handled by the infected person or household members in order to keep the mites from continuing to spread, notes the CDC.
Additional reporting by Deborah Shapiro.