Scabies is a transmissible ectoparasite skin infection characterized by superficial burrows, intense pruritus (itching) and secondary infection. It is caused by the mite Sarcoptes scabiei. The word scabies itself is derived from the Latin word for "scratch" (scabere). Sarcoptes scabiei is a parasitic arthropod which burrows into human skin and causes scabies.
Scabies is caused by the mite Sarcoptes scabiei, variety hominis, as shown by the Italian biologist Diacinto Cestoni in the 18th century. It produces intense, itchy skin rashes when the impregnated female tunnels into the stratum corneum of the skin and deposits eggs in the burrow. The larvae, which hatch in 3-10 days, move about on the skin, molt into a "nymphal" stage, and then mature into adult mites. The adult mites live 3-4 weeks in the host's skin.
The action of the mites moving within the skin and on the skin itself produces an intense itch which may resemble an allergic reaction in appearance. The presence of the eggs produces a massive allergic response which, in turn, produces more itching.
Scabies is transmitted readily, often throughout an entire household, by skin-to-skin contact with an infected person (e.g. bed partners, schoolmates, daycare), and thus is sometimes classed as a sexually transmitted disease. Spread by clothing, bedding, or towels is a less significant risk, and is almost impossible.
The symptoms are caused by an allergic reaction that the body develops over time to the mites and their by-products under the skin, thus the 8 week "incubation" period. There are usually relatively few mites on a normal, healthy person — about 11 females in burrows. Scabies are microscopic although sometimes they are visible as a pinpoint of white. The females burrow into the skin and lay eggs there. Males roam on top of the skin, although they can and do occasionally burrow. Both males and females surface at times, especially at night. They can be washed or scratched off (however scratching should be done with a washcloth to avoid cutting the skin as this can lead to infection), which, although not a cure, helps to keep the total population low. Also, humans create antibodies to the scabies mites which do kill some of them.
A tiny mite (0.3 to 0.9 mm) may sometimes be seen at the end of a burrow. Most burrows occur in the webs of fingers, flexing surfaces of the wrists and armpits, the areolae of the breasts in females and on genitals of males, along the belt line, and on the lower buttocks. The face usually does not become involved in adults.
The rash may become secondarily infected; scratching the rash may break the skin and make secondary infection more likely. In persons with severely reduced immunity, such as those with advanced HIV infection, or people being treated with immunosuppressive drugs like steroids, a widespread rash with thick scaling may result. This variety of scabies is called Norwegian scabies.
Scabies is frequently misdiagnosed as intense pruritus (itching of healthy skin) before papular eruptions form. Upon initial pruritus the burrows appear as small, barely noticeable bumps on the hands and may be slightly shiny and dark in color rather than red. Initially the itching may not exactly correlate to the location of these bumps.
Generally diagnosis is made by finding burrows - which often may be difficult because they are scarce, and because they are obscured by scratch marks. If burrows are not found in the primary areas known to be affected, the entire skin surface of the body should be examined.
The suspicious area can be rubbed with ink from a fountain pen or alternately a topical tetracycline solution which will glow under a special light. The surface is then wiped off with an alcohol pad; if the person is infected with scabies, the characteristic zigzag or S pattern of the burrow across the skin will appear.
When a suspected burrow is found, diagnosis may be confirmed by microscopy of surface scrapings, which are placed on a slide in glycerol, mineral oil or immersion in oil and covered with a coverslip. Avoiding potassium hydroxide is necessary because it may dissolve fecal pellets. Positive diagnosis is made when the mite, ova, or fecal pellets are found. The action of the mites moving within the skin and on the skin itself produces an intense itch which may resemble an allergic reaction in appearance. The presence of the eggs produces a massive allergic response which, in turn, produces more itching.
People with compromised immune systems may not develop antibodies to the mites and may develop crusted Norwegian scabies. In this case, many form scabs or develop very red skin especially in the elderly and the mentally handicapped where white or gray crusted areas develop with little itching and little or no red bumps and mite population numbers rise to thousands in AIDS patients . These cases require additional treatment options to ensure a complete kill. Ivermectin is a single oral treatment of choice in these patients combined with any other topical treatment.The burrowing is carried out using the mouthparts and special cutting surfaces on the front legs. While these are being used, the Sarcoptes scabiei anchors itself with suckers on its feet. Eggs are laid in small numbers as the mite burrows, and as these hatch, six-legged larvae climb out on to the skin and search for hair follicles, where they feed and moult (discard old cuticles to grow). It is in the hair follicles that the larvae show the first nymphic stages, with eight legs. In the nymphic stages, the creature feeds and moults and, if male, gives rise to the adult. In the case of females, another moult occurs before adulthood. The female has more moults than a male and therefore takes longer – seventeen days to the other nine to eleven days for a male to reach adulthood. The female is about twice the size of the male.
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