An introduction to scabies
Scabies is a skin condition caused by your immune system reacting to an infestation of the scabies mite, also known as Sarcoptes scabiei.
These mites are too small to be seen by the human eye but they can burrow their way under the surface of our skin and lay their eggs in the epidermis. After several days these eggs will hatch and the larvae will fester on the surface of your skin.
Scabies mites are also highly contagious, often affecting entire households and schools.
A busy, overcrowded environment can also increase the spread of the parasites, as an outbreak of scabies generally occurs in hectic places where there is more chance of it being spread to other parties, such as schools, care homes or university campuses.
Lifecycle of the scabies mite
The scabies mite can grow anywhere between 0.25 and 0.40 mm, with female scabies being nearly twice the size of their male counterparts, still making them virtually invisible to the naked eye.1
The female scabies are the primary instigators of your symptoms, as it is them who burrow under your epidermis, with the male scabies following to mate - how romantic!
It is estimated that female scabies can live anywhere between 1-2 months, and they can continue to lay eggs throughout this time, once they have been fertilised by a male parasite.2
The unlucky Lotharios die shortly after breeding though, with the females living on to lay their eggs under your skin. The females can lay around 2-3 eggs a day, with each egg usually hatching within a week.
When the eggs hatch, the next generation migrate to the surface of your skin and can take up to two weeks to mature before the cycle is once again repeated.
How is the scabies mite spread?
Scabies are usually spread through skin on skin contact with an infected party, although the mites can also be passed on through contaminated clothing or bedding materials. Scabies mites can live for up to three days after being shed from your skin, making personal objects and shared linen prime candidate for transmitting the affliction.
The condition is highly contagious, being spread from one sexual partner to another, or alternatively, from children to their friends and their parents.
This is why outbreaks are so frequent in communal houses, prisons and nursing homes. Doctors will often recommend scabies treatment for the patient’s family members as well, as a preventative measure.
What conditions do the mites favour?
The scabies mite enjoys overcrowded conditions, which is why the mite is so prevalent in poorly developed urban areas. The mites are so contagious that they can easily overwhelm a mass of people being clustered into a small, congested space.
The infection also seems to be more common during the colder seasons of the year – there is no exact understanding of why. In the UK, scabies affects approximately 1 in every 1000, each month, with the infection peaking around winter.3
This is because mites thrive in overcrowded conditions and the cold, miserable winter weather often has people staying indoors, in crowded environments.
The causes of scabies
There are a number of conditions or factors that can make you more susceptible to an outbreak of scabies.
Poor hygiene used to be considered a main suspect; however it has been shown that scabies has very little to do with cleanliness and more to do with your immune system and the role it can play in fighting the parasites.
Scabies often infect the very young or the very old and this is not coincidental – when you are a child, your immune system is often too underdeveloped to combat the mites, while the very elderly often suffer from ill health and a weakened immune function.
Of course, there are other variables that can influence your immune system – your diet, your stress levels and your general health can either strengthen your system or diminish it. Learn more about this in our Causes page.
The symptoms of scabies
The main and most annoying symptom associated with scabies is the itch.
The sensation is extremely persistent, often disrupting a person’s sleep and placing them at risk of developing a bacterial infection. The burrow tracks made by scabies are also visible to the human eye, usually appearing as a patch of brittle, inflamed skin or as a collection of raised pustules and blisters.
Although these symptoms can be quite distressing, even impacting your psychological wellbeing, it is important to remember that there are solutions, and that most cases of scabies are easy to treat. If you want to learn more about the symptoms of scabies, please check out our Symptoms page.
The treatments of scabies
The good thing about scabies is that there are a number of home, herbal and conventional medicines aimed at killing the mite and treating the superficial symptoms – check out our treatments page for more information!
In most cases, supporting the immune system is imperative, especially if you suffer from a pre-existing health condition.
Getting the right treatment, as soon as possible can make a big difference and prevent you from developing a more serious variant of the condition, Norwegian scabies.
If you have any doubts about your symptoms or any of solutions recommended to you, please speak to your doctor as soon as possible