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What Can I Do About the Itch of Scabies?

There are several treatments for the unbearable itch of scabies, but these mites are developing resistance. Could tea tree oil offer a new alternative?
What Can I Do About the Itch of Scabies?
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You know what it’s like to have an itch, right? Sometimes for no reason at all your back itches. That’s when a friend or partner can come to your rescue. A mosquito bite can itch. So can poison ivy. As unpleasant as these skin irritations can be, they pale in comparison to the itch of scabies. A reader has a very short poignant question about this hard-to-treat condition.

Q. Is there any cure for scabies? It produces unbearable itching.

A. Scabies is caused by the “itch mite,” Sarcoptes scabiei. Three hundred million people around the world are infected each year. Scabies spreads through skin-to-skin human contact.

These tiny parasites burrow into the top layer of the skin. Their saliva causes intense itching that gets worse at night. It often causes a rash, especially around the belt line or at wrists, elbows and armpits.

To cure scabies, doctors prescribe medications that will kill the mite. There are several options.

Permethrin for the Itch of Scabies?

Permethrin, the same insecticide that is commonly used against lice, is applied as a cream against scabies. A good friend was prescribed this scabicide for his unbearable itch. It helped a bit for a short amount of time. Then the itching resumed with a vengeance.

Ivermectin:

Next, he got an oral dose of ivermectin. Doctors also prescribe this anti-parasitic medication for scabies, although the FDA has not approved it for this use. It took two courses to overcome the infestation. Side effects of ivermectin include dizziness, digestive upset, fatigue, skin rash and itching. Serious reactions include changes in heart rhythm and eye inflammation.

In some places, itch mites are developing resistance to both of these standard treatments (American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, Feb. 2016). 

Other Drugs vs. the Itch of Scabies:

Doctors sometimes prescribe other drugs that kill the scabies mite such as lindane, malathion or crotamiton, but resistance is becoming a problem for these as well. These medicines are applied to the skin. Crotamiton, for example, is applied to the entire body, left on for 24 hours and re-applied. During the treatment period, the patient should not shower or bathe.

Tea Tree Oil?

Australian researchers are studying the potential of topical tea tree oil as an additional approach (American Journal of Tropical Hygiene, Feb. 2016).  They are currently conducting a randomized controlled trial comparing tea tree oil to permethrin as an active control (BMJ Open, May 31, 2018). 

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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