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Debabrata Bandyopadhyay,  Professor & Head,  Dept. of Dermatology,
 R G Kar Medical College, Calcutta, INDIA


Scabies is a highly contagious infestation of humans and other mammals caused by the itch mite Sarcoptes scabiei. Transmitted by close personal contact, it readily spreads among family members and inmates of institutions, sometimes causing a mini-epidemic. A severe variety of the disease may occur among immunocompromised and mentally or neurologically challenged persons. Scabies has the distinction of being the first human disease proven to be caused by pathogen.


  • Scabies is caused by Sarcoptes scabiei. Physiological variants of the same species cause ‘mange’ in other mammals, like dogs, cats, cattle, rabbits, pigs and horses. Mites of one animal do not cause established infestations on other animals. Humans may contact animal scabies but the infestation is mild and dies out spontaneously.

  • The size of the male and female mites are about .2mm and .4mm respectively. Oval in shape, they are ventrally flattened and have a convex dorsal surface4. itch mite have four pairs of legs. The first two pairs in both sexes and the fourth pair in males end in specialized structures called suckers that help them grip and move on the skin surface. The remaining pairs end in long bristles.

  • The disease is spread from an infested person to another by close personal and prolonged contact. including sexual transmission. Prolonged hand-holding and sleeping together facilitates transmission particularly among family members, playmates, and inmates of institutions and dormitories. Overcrowding and associated poverty and poor hygiene helps transmission.

  • Transmissions through fomites (clothing, linens towels) may occur but are not considered significant modes of spread.

  • A newly fertilized female is usually the initiator of the infestation. Body odor and warmth may aid the host-seeking behavior of the mites.

  • The female mite immediately starts digging a tunnel in the horny layer of the skin and remains in the burrow for the rest of its life thriving on the host lymph and lysed tissue. The female mites lay eggs at the rate of 2 to 3 eggs per day for 6 to 8 weeks. The eggs hatch out in 3-4 days , pierce the roof of the burrow and after the larval and a few molts in the nymphal stage , becomes adult. Mating takes place on the surface of the skin and the male dies. It takes about two weeks for an egg to develop into a graved female.

  • An affected host harbors about 11 to 12 gravid female mites.

  • A delayed hypersensitivity reaction (type IV) to the mites, their eggs or feces develops approximately 4 weeks after the infestation. This is responsible for the intense itching. A person with a past history of scabies can develop immediate pruritus on re-infestation.

  • In immunocompromised, mentally retarded, or physically or neurologically debilitated persons, an extensive form of scabies (crusted scabies of Norwegian scabies) may occur. These individuals may harbor thousands of mites in their scales or crusts and thus may be highly contagious to others.




  • Scabies occurs in all populations. It is particularly prevalent in the developing countries.

  • Children younger than 15 years of age have the highest prevalence.

  • After an incubation period of about 4 weeks the disease manifests itself with its most characteristic symptom: severe itching with nocturnal exacerbation.

  • The patient may present with extensive pyoderma or infective eczema.

  • The pathognomonic lesion of scabies is the burrow: short, straight or curved, slightly elevated lesion which often has a vesicle at its end .Burrows are typically found on the finger webs, front of the wrists, axillae and genitalia.

  • Intensely itchy papular and vesicular lesions soon develop due to hypersensitivity and these lesions may be generalized with predilections for the nipple and areola in females, umbilical regions, buttocks, groins and thighs.

  • The scalp, face and the palms and soles are usually spared sites in the usual cases.

  • The lesions are readily infected with bacteria and impetigo, folliculitis, oozing and crusting are very commonly seen as also localized or extensive infective eczema.


  • Norwegian or crusted scabies: this is an unsually severe and extensive variety of scabies that occurs in immunocompromised individuals ( HIV infection, steroid therapy, malignancies), mentally retarded persons ( particularly Down’s syndrome) , and in old debilitated persons unable to respond to the infestation by scratching. Crusted scabies is characterized by thick scaling and crusted lesions on the sites of preference of the mites. In contrast to the more usual variety of the disease, the palms and soles may be affected and the nails may be thickened and dystrophic. Facial involvement may also occur. The condition may give rise to a generalized erythroderma. Thousand, even millions of mites may be present in a patient.

  • Nodular scabies: genital scabies in males may give rise to  persistent papules and nodules with lingers despite successful treatment of the infestation. Histologically, the nodules may mimic a lymphoma.

  • Bullous scabies: bullae may occur in infants and immunocompromised people.

  • Animal scabies: is characterized by absence of burrows since the animal mites cannot adapt themselves to human skin.

  • Scabies in infants and in the very old: infantile scabies shows involvement of palms and soles as well as the face and scalp. In the very old, the trunk may be more severely infested.

  • Scabies incognito: inadvertent application of topical steroid may modify the clinical picture of scabies.

  • Scabies in very clean individuals may show few lesions, thus confusion may arise as to the true nature of the itch.




  • Typical clinical features of itching with nocturnal exacerbation and finding the burrows and papules and vesicles in the sites of preference. History of scabies in close contacts is an important diagnostic feature.

  • The diagnosis may be confirmed by finding the mites, their eggs or feces by scraping the burrows and examining under a microscope.. Visualization of the burrow may be aided by applying marker pen ink and washing the excess with alcohol, or painting with tetracycline solution which is retained on the burrow and examining under Wood’s light : the burrows will fluoresce.



  • Insect bite

  • Papular urticaria

  • Dermatitis herpetiformis

  • Atopic dermatitis

  • Contact dermatitis

  • Pyoderma


  • Secondary pyogenic infection. Streptococcal pyoderma may in turn be complicated by glomerulonephritis.

  • Infective eczema

  • Persistent nodules

  • Crusted or Norwegian scabies

  • Erythroderma from crusted scabies


Scabicidal agents:

Topical agents:

  • Permethrin 5% cream: single application, kept for 12 hours. Repeat application after a week may be advised. Permethrin may be used in young children.

  • Gamma benzene hydrochloride (GBHC, Lindane) 1% cream or lotion.  GBHC is used as a single application on dry skin kept for 12 to 24 hours. A repeat application after 7 days is often recommended. Not recommend for application in infants.

  • Benzyl benzoate 25% emulsion: applied for three consecutive days.

  • 6 to 10% sulphur ointment : applied for 3 to 5 consecutive day, application is messy.

  • Crotamiton lotion or cream: less effective, may have a non-specific anti-pruritic effect.

  • Malathion .5% solution : somewhat less effective, should be applied repeatedly.

  • Topical thiabendazole is also said to be effective.

  • Monosulfirum-impregnated soaps are sometimes advised as a prophylactic in outbreaks.

Systemic therapy:

Iivermectin, a macrolide without antibacterial activity has both ecto- and endo- parasiticidal activities. A single dose of ivermectin 200 microgram per kg body weight is an effective drug particularly in crusted scabies. It is not recommended in children younger than 5 years of age.

Scabicidal treatment of family members and close contacts is mandatory.

Adjunct therapy:

  • Antibacterials for pyoderma and topical steroid for Eczematization.

  • Antihistaminics for pruritus.

  • Intralesional steroids may be needed for the treatment of nodular scabies.


  • Avoidance of contact with infested persons.

  • Treatment of all close contacts.

  • Maintenance of good personal hygiene.

  • Improvement of socio-economic conditions is associated with lowered prevalence of scabies.


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