How you get it, and how to get rid of it
It all started with a text message. A girl he’d slept with told him she had scabies. A week later, Ernst realised something was off with him, too: he was itchy!
He struggled to get rid of the infection for two months. Two months of scratching and applying ointment to get rid of it. He never wants to go through that again.
‘It was winter, and the heating would be on when I got home. But heat makes the itching worse. I’d be sitting in the common room, just scratching and scratching. Just constantly, until I got so mad I just started screaming’, he says. ‘It’s worse than an STD. There’s no escape from it. You can’t even sit still without having to scratch. It’s on your mind all the time.’
Ernst is one of the many victims of scabies in Groningen. In early February, the Groningen public health service reported there were twenty-five patients a week, or fifty-eight per a hundred thousand inhabitants. That’s fewer than the sixty-six in late December, but the number has been steadily increasing over the past few weeks. Most people affected are students.
‘Scabies is what we call a social affliction’, says general practitioner Maarten Goedhart with StudentArts, a GP’s office that recently started a scabies office hour. The bugs spread the fastest in places where people live together in large groups. ‘Especially girls like to chill and hang out together, twelve of them under a blanket watching Netflix.’
It’s so much worse than an STD, it’s on your mind all the time
That’s why Contractus, the partnership uniting Groningen’s bigger student associations, last week launched a campaign to get a handle on scabies among students. The campaign is aimed at informing students on what to do when they get scabies. Together with Groningen GPs, Contractus wrote up clear and simple guidelines that they plan on disseminating among students using social media. ‘We were hearing a lot of different stories about how to treat scabies’, says board member Lotte Jonker. ‘But a small change in treatment can mean the difference between being cured or suffering another outbreak.’
Scabies is a contagious skin disease. Itch mites are round, spiney animals measuring a quarter to half a millimetre. They’re invisible to the naked eye, but you sure feel them once they start burrowing under your skin. This causes blistering, pimples, and most of all: itching. ‘One of the most common symptoms is night itches’, says Goedhart. ‘The scabies mites under the skin become more active in heat. It starts moving when you go to bed.’
Lotion and pills
Maarten also got scabies a few months ago. While Ernst suffered for two months, it took him nearly six months to get rid of it. ‘I didn’t really think much of it at first. So when I started getting itchy, I didn’t take it seriously. Until it got really bad. That’s when I went to see a doctor.’
Standard treatment consists of putting permethrin lotion all over your body, repeating the treatment after a week, says Goedhart. It’s effective in 97 percent of all cases. Weirdly enough, dermatologists tend to prescribe ivermectin tablets. ‘But the lotion is much better; ivermectin only has a success rate of 56 percent.’
Maarten was given both pills and lotion. ‘I put the lotion on five times and I had to take two courses of pills’, he says. ‘My skin was completely messed up: dry and chapped, and I was covered in weird blotches.’
When his skin still hadn’t recovered three months after the treatment, he went back to his doctor. ‘They said it was from the lotion, but that turned out to be wrong. I actually still had scabies, so I had to start all over again.’
The pills are bad for your liver and the lotion is bad for your skin
He ended up treating not just himself, but his entire living environment. He put everything in garbage bags: clothes, shoes, hats, towels. ‘I put on the lotion, wore a set of clean clothes for a week, put on more lotion and took the pills. After that, it was finally gone’, he says.
Getting rid of the mites is a ‘hell of a job’, confirms Ernst, because the medication is hard on the body as well. ‘The pills are bad for your liver and the lotion is bad for your skin. After two months of treatment my skin is all fucked up.’
The lotion caused itching and blotches for him as well, making him really insecure. ‘I kept looking at my wrists and wondering if it was from the scabies or from the lotion, even when I knew it was the latter.’
Tijmen, who couldn’t get rid of the bugs after two months, finally ended up at a dermatologist after his GP no longer knew how to help him. ‘I must have put the lotion on upwards of twenty times’, he says.
Just like Ernst, Tijmen got the bugs from someone he’d slept with. Since he initially was just itchy, he didn’t think it was scabies, until he noticed the pimples on his skin. ‘That’s when I knew. It’s really hard to get rid of.’
He mainly hated having to tell other people about the infestation, since everyone you come into skin-on-skin contact with for at least fifteen minutes can get it: not just sexual partners, but roommates as well. That means they have to take measures as well, including using the lotion and putting their clothes and bedding in garbage bags.
‘It just felt like I was telling them something very personal and dirty about myself’, he says. Tijmen’s roommates made sure to use the lotion as a precaution. ‘They had to, because I really wanted to get rid of it.’
Ernst also felt uncomfortable divulging his affliction. Fortunately, he didn’t have to talk to too many people, but still. ‘I was worried people would start gossiping. What were they saying about me?’
The students are happy Contractus and the GPs set up a campaign, since there are still too many unknowns when it comes to treating scabies. ‘Treatment needs to be quicker. You don’t immediately get referred to someone who knows all about and can help you out with the process’, says Ernst.
That shit made me paranoid
‘We should all just be scabies-free. It’s the only way to get rid of it in the city’, says Tijmen.
Maarten thinks the campaign should have been started sooner. ‘It’s an epidemic, plain and simple, and there wasn’t a single agency that warned us to watch out for it.’
Fortunately, Ernst and Maarten are both scabies-free. Maarten even uses the lotion as a precaution these days. ‘Whenever a roommate or someone else tells me they have it, I start lathering it on. That shit made me paranoid.’
He even avoids sitting on fabric-covered chairs or sofas. ‘I’d rather stand. People might say they don’t have it, but you never know. I’d rather a truck drive over my foot than get scabies again.’
Tijmen has to hang on for a little bit longer. ‘I got it again last weekend. It’s back to the lotion for me tonight. It just won’t leave me alone.’
Are your hands, groin, or feet covered in burrows and is the skin flaking off? Are you itchy? It might be scabies, so you’d best get to your GP. You have to treat yourself, as well as your sexual partner or your roommates. This is what you have to do:
- Make sure to really clean your room, especially your couch, fabric-covered chairs, and carpets. Put on disposable gloves and get three days’ worth of clean clothes.
- Put all the clothes you’ve worn, your bedding, and your used towels in a garbage bag and wash it at 60 degrees Celsius. Anything you can’t watch, such as slippers or stuffed animals, you put in a closed garbage bag for at least three days.
- Shower using water and soap and keep your towel and washcloth separate from the rest of your things. Cut your nails and put permethrin lotion on your entire body, from your jaw to your foot soles. Make sure it gets in under your nails, as well. Let the lotion absorb for twelve hours. Re-apply the lotion whenever you wash or wipe a body part, such as your hands, buttocks, and genitals.
- Day 2: Wash your bedding and nightwear at 60 degrees Celsius (wear gloves while doing laundry. Shower using water and soap, put on clean clothes and flip your mattress before making your bed. Repeat after a week.