An image of a child scratching.

Of all the pesky childhood conditions you'd like to avoid, scabies is probably near the top. This highly contagious and terribly uncomfortable condition often spreads in daycare and school settings, putting parents on high alert. With more than 200,000 cases worldwide at any given time, scabies is considered a common condition. But that doesn't make it any less miserable.

As a parent, you probably have lots of questions: What causes scabies? What does scabies look like? How do you get rid of scabies? Whether you've been notified about a potential scabies outbreak, or you're just hoping to avoid it, check out our comprehensive guide for parents.

How Do You Get Scabies?

Scabies is a skin condition caused by the microscopic scabies mite (scientific name Sarcoptes scabiei var. hominis). It burrows into the upper layer of the skin and lays eggs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Scabies mites thrive on prolonged person-to-person contact, and are therefore most likely to spread in crowded places like daycares, hospitals, schools, and nursing homes. A scabies infestation spells bad news for environments like these, since the mites can easily survive for a few days without a host, says Hadley King, M.D., a dermatologist based in New York City. This is quite unlike many other types of mites, like lice or bedbugs. "And if just a single mite survives, you can be reinfected with scabies due to their super fast rate of reproduction," Dr. King warns.

Contact with an infested object (like bedding, towels, or clothing) can also lead to scabies in kids, but it's not the most common mode of transmission.

Scabies Symptoms in Kids

Scabies often begins as an insidious itch that gets worse in the evening, followed by a widespread, pimple-like red rash that can occur all over the body. In young kids, scabies can affect the face and neck, while older kids and adults are often spared the itch in these locations. The most commonly affected areas in a scabies infection are the hands (especially between the fingers), wrists, midsection, groin, legs, and buttocks. Sores can develop after scratching the scabies rash, which can lead to infection.

If your child has been infested with scabies, you may notice a series of bumps in a straight line; this is a sign of the arthropods burrowing into the skin, and it's a hallmark of scabies in kids and adults alike. "Because mites are often few in number (only 10-15 mites per person), these burrows may be difficult to find," notes the CDC.

At first, though, you may not see any symptoms at all. "There may be no symptoms for the first two to six weeks," says Dr. King. This is especially true for first-time scabies infections; if you've been infected before, symptoms may appear within days. But remember that infected kids can still spread scabies without symptoms, says the CDC.

Scabies Treatment

There isn't much good news when it comes to scabies in kids. And the treatment for scabies isn't exactly a walk in the park either. The best way to treat scabies is usually a 5% permethrin treatment, prescribed by a doctor. "This comes in the form of a topical cream, and can safely be used on kids two months of age and older, and women who are pregnant," Dr. King says.

Below, we've included step-by-step instructions for how to treat scabies in kids using permethrin cream. Always make sure to read manufacturer's directions, though, and talk to a doctor for any questions.

1. In the evening before bed, undress your child completely, including their diaper. Give them something to distract their attention.

2. Liberally apply the cream from the neck down. (Infants and young children often need treatment for their scalp and face, too, says Dr. King.) Be sure to hit every single inch of skin, including between the fingers, in the armpits and groin, behind the knees, and even the bottoms of their feet.

3. Let the lotion dry for at least 30 minutes. Then dress your child in pajamas that provide full coverage to avoid them rubbing the lotion off or putting it in their mouth (for younger children, footed pajamas work well for this).

4. First thing in the morning, remove all of your child's clothing, along with any and all bedding (blankets, comforters, stuffed animals, etc.) and place everything in a trash bag. Seal the bag tightly and store it near your washing machine for at least 24 to 48 hours.

5. Shower your child in very warm water, removing lotion completely.

6. Wash your child's belongings using the hottest water possible in a washing machine, and then use the hot setting in a dryer, Dr. King says. "If something cannot be washed, have it dry cleaned, or seal it in a plastic bag for at least one week. And vacuum all rugs and upholstered furniture on the day you start treatment." This step is essential and must be done thoroughly in order to prevent re-infestation.

7. Repeat the cleaning process as needed, and the permethrin treatment one week later if your doctor recommends it. 

For stubborn cases of scabies that aren't resolved with the use of permethrin cream, oral ivermectin can be used safely, even in young children, Dr. King says. Talk to your child's pediatrician to determine the best course of treatment to bring quick relief to the miserable scabies rash. And remember that scabies treatment is also recommended for members of the infected person's household, as well as anyone who had close contact with them.

What To Do If Your Child is Exposed to Scabies

If you have a young child at daycare or school, you may one day get that dreaded note in their backpack indicating there's a scabies outbreak. If you receive this news, it's essential to act fast, Dr. King says. "Scabies is very contagious. Everyone who had close contact with the outbreak needs treatment. People do not have to have signs and symptoms of scabies to have mites on their skin—it can take two to six weeks before symptoms develop. It's prudent for everyone to be treated."


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