Many people have never heard of scabies and when they finally do hear it mentioned, it's often referred to as body lice, but the two terms are not synonymous. While scabies are similar to lice in that they live on the body and reproduce there, this isn't a case of head or pubic lice relocating to your chest, arms or legs. Scabies are ectoparasitic mites and are invisible to the naked eye. Most people realize they are infected when they develop a characteristic rash. Note that this article is only about regular scabies, and not Norwegian scabies which is a far more severe disease typically only seen in immuno-compromised patients. For more information on what scabies is and what it looks like, see below.
What is scabies?
As I've already mentioned, scabies are microscopic mites which live on the skin. You can't see them, so don't bother trying. Symptoms are caused by the female mite, who digs her way under your skin to lay her eggs. Several days later those eggs hatch and your body then produces an allergic reaction to those mites, hence the often extreme itching. That female mite will then hang out under your skin for the rest of her life (approx 2 months) and reproduce as much as she possibly can. The scabies skin disease is the result of this infestation.
How do you get scabies?
You get scabies via direct skin contact. It's thought you need to have direct contact for longer than the duration of a handshake, but given that scabies often infest the human hand and wrist, I wouldn't necessarily rule out the possibility of catching it this way. You may also be able to catch scabies from inanimate objects but this is thought to be a rare occurrence.
What are the symptoms of scabies?
Fine, wavy S-shaped lines along the surface of the skin. These can be thin, silver colored, skin colored or even dark. These lines are the burrows the female Sarcoptes scabiei mite leaves under your skin as she lays her eggs. They can pretty much go unnoticed until itching starts.
Pimple-like bites. When the mites bite they can leave marks that resemble pimples.
Severe itching. Scabies itches like mad. You usually itch in one place to begin with and then as the scabies mites migrate across your body the itching will spread to other places.
Webbing of fingers, creases of skin. Scabies mites often take up residence in the webbing of your fingers and creased areas such as under the breasts, inner elbow, shoulder blades, the crease under your backside, etc.
Secondary rashes. People with scabies often wind up with red rashes in the general location of the scabies infestation, as well as parts of the body which aren't actively infested. This isn't necessarily a direct result of the scabies themselves but rather your body's reaction to them.
Is scabies treatment necessary?
Scabies mites will continue to reproduce and spread across your body without treatment. So unless you want to develop a proper Seven Year Itch, you will need proper treatment. It will not go away on its own.