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5 unsettling facts about scabies in light of the recent Winchester Hospital alert

Winchester Hospital confirmed it was treating more than 20 employees for possible contraction of the unpleasant skin condition scabies.
Winchester Hospital confirmed it was treating more than 20 employees for possible contraction of the unpleasant skin condition scabies. Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff/File

Scabies found its way into the local news cycle this week after Winchester Hospital confirmed it was treating more than 20 employees for possible contraction of the unpleasant skin condition.

But what, exactly, is scabies?

It’s terrible, is what it is — an unfortunate and fairly contagious skin issue that can result in intense itching, rash, scales and blisters.

The good news is that it’s considered easily treatable with prescription creams and antihistamine pills. While it’s still around, however, it can make life very unpleasant.

Here are five particularly unsettling facts about the condition that will leave you hoping you never have to experience them for yourself.

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1. While it appears as a simple rash, scabies is really an infestation. Allow WebMD to explain: “Tiny mites called Sarcoptes scabiei set up shop in the outer layers of human skin. The skin does not take kindly to the invasion. As the mites burrow and lay eggs inside the skin, the infestation leads to relentless itching and an angry rash.”

Neat.

2. The mites make a point to attack in highly sensitive areas. “People can develop widespread red scaly rashes, but classic locations include the genitals, buttocks, belly button, armpits, around the areola of the breast, wrist/ankles and the interweb spaces of the hands/feet,” says Shinjita Das, a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School and dermatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, in an email.

3. It’s sort of an STD. Scabies can be spread in a number of ways — hand-holding, sharing bedding or furniture with someone who has it — but it is commonly spread in sexual partners. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, scabies is frequently passed along sexually (those within prisons, nursing homes, and extended-living centers are also at higher risk). So keep that in mind the next time you’re scrolling through Tinder.

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4. There is something called crusted scabies that you really don’t want. And here’s why: Though a person with scabies will typically only have 10 to 15 mites on them at any given time, “persons with crusted scabies have thick crusts of skin that contain large numbers of scabies mites and eggs,” according to the CDC. Crusted scabies is also highly contagious.

5. It can be difficult to diagnose. Why? “It can mimic many other skin conditions (e.g. bug bites, hives, eczema, folliculitis, and neurotic excoriations, just to name a few),” writes Das. “The suspicion rises if multiple close household contacts are similarly itchy and if the tell-tale sign of the burrow is noted.”


Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.