Scabies is a skin condition caused by the tiny mite of the Sarcoptes scabiei species that burrows under the human skin to lay its eggs.
Scabies is often spread through sexual or other close contact, and thus is classified as a sexually transmitted disease (STD). STDs can be bacterial, fungal, parasitic, or viral; scabies falls under the category of parasitic STDs.
The mite that causes scabies typically cannot live for very long off the body, so it is usually only possible to get them from shared bedding, clothes, or towels within the first few hours, but in rare cases they can be transmitted this way up to two and even three days.
Though often present in the genital area, scabies can also occur elsewhere on the body, including the abdomen, ankles, breasts, buttocks, fingers, thighs, and wrists.
Scabies shows up on the skin as a rash of red bumps. Red burrow lines can sometimes be seen on the skin. Scabies is easily recognized by a doctor.
Or at least it would be, except the itching is so severe that by the time the doctor sees them, patients often have torn up their skin so that it no longer looks as it did. The rash and itching (which people often experience as even more torturous during the night) are an allergic reaction. The more you can resist scratching (though good luck with that) the better, as excessive scratching of the rash area can easily lead to infection and complications that make a bad situation worse.
Thankfully scabies is a treatable condition. The mite and its eggs can be killed with a topical pesticide.
Most commonly used are lotions with the chemical permethrin, which is contained in over-the-counter products such as Rid and Nix used for pubic lice (crabs). The lotion must be used all over the body from the neck down, and then washed off after the specified number of hours on the directions.
Many people get results from the over-the-counter remedies. On the other hand, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that no over-the-counter medication has been formally approved for treatment of human scabies.
The CDC recommends going with stronger options that are available only by prescription. There are creams with a higher concentration of permethrin, as well as another chemical treatment called lindane, and a non-chemical treatment (often used for babies) called crotamiton. Doctors can also prescribe an oral medication called ivermectin for severe cases, cases that are not responsive to the lotions and creams, and patients with altered immune systems.
Though there shouldn’t be a problem killing the mites with the proper treatment, that does not mean full relief will be immediate. The allergic reaction of the body can last days or even weeks after the mites are gone, meaning one may not be fully free of the itch for a long time.
It is also an important part of treatment to treat the items that can transmit scabies. All clothes, towels, bedding, etc. should either be kept free of contact for at least 72 hours, or should be thoroughly washed. Dry cleaning, or washing in hot water and drying on high heat should eliminate the mites that cause scabies.
Elizabeth Boskey, “Scabies: An Overview.” About.com.
“Scabies.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Scabies.” Mayo Clinic.