It started with a one-night stand
How to ditch the itch
As with many good student stories, it all started with a one-night stand. ‘Jorn gets around a bit’, says Redger Barels, a third-year student of liberal arts and sciences. ‘We’re no detectives, but we were fairly certain we know who introduced scabies to our household’, he says with a knowing smile.
Scabies has been making the rounds in Groningen as of late, with the bugs enjoying the close, cosy spirit of many of the city’s student houses. But since it is not a notifiable disease (a doctor doesn’t have to report a case to the regional health authority), where it has come from is not clear, says Peter Horinga of the GGD Groningen.
Scabies will notify you, though – that’s for sure. The parasite burrows itself into the skin of its victims who are left with an insatiable itch. The ‘scabies’ you see are in fact burrows, their homes which they’ve excavated out of your skin.
But of course, an itch can be anything. ‘At first I really wasn’t sure what I was dealing with’, remembers Redger. ‘I’d thought perhaps I had brushed up against a nettle or something – you know that sort of warm, prickling feeling.’ Redger has form when it comes to scabies though, this latest infection being the third time in little over a year he has been home to these itchy mites.
They were in our sofas, armchairs, and likely all of our bed linen
‘Before we’d cottoned on to Jorn having scabies, he’d sat all over the sofas. It was game over before we could even try to prevent getting them ourselves’ Within a few days of Jorn’s escapades, Redger had realised his itch was scabies.
‘They seem to love anywhere we sit. They were in our sofas, armchairs, and likely all of our bed linen’, Redger recalls. ‘We’d briefly have people over and tell them not to sit down for fear of them catching it. It was all a bit musical chairs there for a while.’
Getting rid of them
With everything so full of burrowing, itching mites, one might wonder how you’d ever get rid of them. ‘It was quite the hassle’, Jorn, a business management student, says. ‘All of the sofas had to be thoroughly vacuumed as a precaution. Our bed linen had to be taken to a laundromat that could wash it all at ninety degrees centigrade and our clothes had to be washed with a special anti-scabies laundry detergent’, he explains.
Although Redger and Jorn were well and truly itchy, their flatmates, it seemed, had dodged a dose of scabies. ‘Frank and Niek, they didn’t catch it at all, or at least did tell us otherwise.’ They did of course have to go through the rigmarole of washing, vacuuming, and trips to the laundromat. One person Redger did pass it on to, however, was his girlfriend.
‘I was a bit embarrassed passing it on to her’, he says earnestly. ‘You have this impression that it’s only something you get and pass on if you’re promiscuous. I have had the same girlfriend for over a year and I really felt bad passing it on.’ But this was nothing new for her. She, like him, has also been through the Groningen scabies mill, contracting the parasite several times.
See your doctor
Getting rid of scabies from your furniture is only half the equation – you also have to get rid of them from yourself. The GGD Groningen recommends seeking advice from your doctor should you suspect a case of scabies. ‘Scabies is easy to treat with a special cream or with tablets. Always discuss the treatment plan with the doctor and do not do it on your own initiative!’
It was a sort of communal ‘descabying’ ritual: I would rub the cream into his back and he’d do the same for me
With pharmacies in short supply of permethrin cream, the topical ointment used to treat the mites, it can take some time before scabies is gone for good. The treatment involves a full tube of permethrin, a good lathering, and a rather long wait. It can take up to two months to ditch the itch for good.
‘I remember going to the pharmacy and asking for every tube of cream they could sell me, I ended up bringing home six tubes’, says Redger. ‘It was a sort of communal descabying ritual. I would rub the cream into his back and he would do the same for me’, demonstrates Jorn, making circles with his hands.
Scabies might be seen as the ultimate form of flat bonding – a big spring clean, washing linens that are probably due a good clean anyway, and getting up close and personal with your roommates’ backs.
There’s no rhyme or reason to who gets scabies
But while everybody on the Petrus Campersingel had to go through the motions, it was only Jorn and Redger who ever had the itch. ‘That’s a bit of a mystery to us all actually – why is it that some people catch it in these settings and others don’t?’ asks Redger.
Redger says there’s no rhyme or reason to who gets scabies either. ‘Although it’s all a bit of a laugh, people really think you’re a bit gross. And I’m not.’ Redger says he really wants people to know he’s by no means unhygienic and catching scabies can more or less be a matter of luck. ‘Perhaps had Jorn not lived here…’ he says chuckling.
The GGD Groningen has some very practical advice prepared with a student lifestyle in mind: ‘For students, it is especially important to know that roommates and other people with whom the person has intensive skin contact are treated simultaneously.’
Perhaps the burning question for those like Jorn – can I still get cosy? The answer is pretty straightforward, says Horinga, ‘About twelve hours after your scabies treatment, you are no longer contagious. You can still suffer from itching up to four weeks afterwards. So after those twelve hours, it is safe to have sex.’
You can get infected if you have skin-to-skin contact with someone with scabies for more than fifteen minutes. Or if you wear that person’s clothes. It then takes two to six weeks before you notice it. But when you become infected again later, you will get itchy in a few days.
- You get itchy especially at night and when it is warm.
- Sometimes you will have small blisters or red bumps, usually between your fingers, on your wrists, or on your feet.
See your doctor
- Your doctor will probably prescribe a cream and will give you washing instructions
- Roommates and bed partners should be treated on the same day, even if they have no symptoms.
In the evening:
- Put the clothes you have been wearing for the past three days in a rubbish bag and seal it well.
- Apply the cream
The next morning:
- Put on disposable gloves and wash the clothes, your bedding, shoes, slippers, rugs, cuddly toys at 50 degrees or higher
- Or put everything in bags and leave them at room temperature for three days
You may be contagious up to twelve hours after the treatment. But the itching may last for another four weeks. If the cream does not work, the doctor may prescribe tablets.
sources: ggd, apotheek.nl, rivm