Scabies and Bed Bugs: Who Is at Risk?
Updated: Oct 31, 2019
Scabies and bed bugs are often mentioned in the same breath, not because the insects involved are greatly alike, but because people often confuse the appearance of bed bug bites with the marks left by the scabies mite (or Sarcoptes scabiei, as it is formally known).
The confusion between the two pests is easy to understand, but the way in which they are treated is quite different. In fact, they are so dissimilar that an incorrect diagnosis can result in sometimes unpleasant consequences.
So, before we talk about how to eradicate scabies mites and bed bugs, we need a little more information about the two pests.
Scabies: The Equal Opportunity Assailant
Contrary to popular belief, scabies is not restricted to inner-city slums or sub-standard housing. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out:
"Scabies is a common condition found worldwide; it affects people of all races and social classes. Scabies can spread easily under crowded conditions where close body and skin contact are common. Institutions such as nursing homes, extended-care facilities, and prisons are often sites of scabies outbreaks. Child care facilities also are a common site of scabies infestations.”
To begin with, scabies is caused by small mites, whereas bed bugs are, in fact, insects. Quite different. But they do have one thing in common: they both feed on human blood. However, scabies mites burrow under the victim’s skin to both feed and lay their eggs. Bed bugs, on the other hand, feed on the surface of the skin ̶ and they aren’t particularly choosy which part.
Scabies mites tend to target specific parts of the human body, such as the wrist, between the fingers, the stomach, on the elbows and between the toes.
When it comes to telling bed bugs and scabies apart, we have discussed this in depth in previous articles. Where bed bug bites are raised, flat red welts, typically appearing three in a row, scabies look like grayish-white, raised lines.
Eventually these unsightly lines will turn into red, inflamed bumps (called papules) and can quickly fester. If untreated a victim will eventually find that yellow crusting (known as the Norwegian form), scaling and skin lesions can take over larger patches of skin. What’s worse, the process can be ongoing: The two or three eggs that are laid each day will eventually emerge, then burrow back under the skin to mate ̶ and produce even more mites!
Unfortunately, scabies sores are terribly itchy, and it’s almost impossible not to scratch them. Do that, however, and you run the risk of opening up the skin and making yourself susceptible to further infections.
Who Is at the Greatest Risk for Scabies?
As we said earlier, scabies is highly contagious and, because it can also be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, it’s especially hazardous for certain types of people. For instance, children, who often engage in rough-and-tumble physical play, are particularly susceptible, as are the mothers of young children. To this, we should add those who reside in nursing homes, assisted-living residences and extended-care facilities.
Patients in hospitals, as well as the elderly, are also at greater risk of contracting scabies, as is anyone with a weakened immune system. That obviously means that people with HIV/AIDS should be especially wary of coming into contact with scabies-afflicted individuals. But the those suffering from lymphoma or leukemia are at increased risk.
As a matter of fact, the spread of scabies among people in nursing homes and extended-care facilities has become a serious problem of late. And no state or region seems has been spared the challenge.
Much of this has to do with the fact that residents in these sorts of facilities often need assistance with day-to-day activities, so skin-to-skin contact is frequent. A single infected resident can spread scabies to caregivers or nursing staff, and that, in turn, practically guarantees that other residents will quickly become infected.
It’s also worth noting that patients who suffer from the Norwegian variant of scabies often shed the mites, thereby contaminating clothing, bedding, and furniture alike. As one might expect, immuno-compromised individuals, as well as the elderly and disabled are more likely to develop this crusted form of scabies.
Bed Bugs ̶ The Everywhere/Anytime Threat
At the beginning of this blog we noted that, “People often confuse the appearance of bed bug bites with the marks left by the scabies mite.” But that is because most of us rarely see either kinds of bite. Most people become victims of bed bug bites as they sleep and are generally unaware that they’ve been a source of sustenance for these buggy ‘vampires.’
Unlike the raised white lines on the skin that signal the presence of scabies, bed bug bites often show up as welts that appear in zig zag lines.
We say ‘usually’ because there are always exceptions to the rule, although those welts or bite marks are extremely itchy. Still, there are some instances in which bed bug bites don’t manifest themselves immediately; it can sometimes take days for those red, itchy welts to appear.
Unlike scabies, bed bug bites are not contagious. Merely touching them will not transmit any virus or bacterial infection. Our old ‘friends’ at the CDC are clear on this matter:
“Bed bugs are not known to spread disease. . .. A bed bug bite affects each person differently. Bite responses can range from an absence of any physical signs of the bite, to a small bite mark, to a serious allergic reaction. Bed bugs are not considered to be dangerous; however, an allergic reaction to several bites may need medical attention”
Again, unlike scabies, bed bugs pose no great danger to any particular group or kind of individual. They can, and will, use any human as a source of blood. They’re not especially discriminating.
That’s why bed bugs can be found virtually anywhere, including apartments, shelters, rooming houses, hotels, cruise ships, buses, trains, dorm rooms, hospitals, retirement homes, prisons and correctional facilities. You name it and chances are that you might be able to find bed bugs. Not always, of course; but no place is immune.
Bed bugs can usually be found in and around the places in which people sleep. And that’s because they prefer to feed on human blood at night. In fact, research shows that while they can travel up to 100 feet during their night-time rambles, they prefer to live within 10 feet of their prey. Us!
The A, B, C’s of Bug Eradication
In the last couple of years, we’ve dealt in some detail with the ways in which you can get rid of various creepy-crawlies where they live, e.g. your home, your office, your manufacturing facilities, and so on.
If you take the time to dip into our collection of past Sterifab blogs you’ll find detailed information on bed bugs and scabies, as well as articles about how to get rid of fleas, ticks, getting rid of mites, rats and mice, as well as lice, centipedes, sow bugs, ants, silverfish, roaches and firebrats.