What is it?
Scabies is caused by tiny parasitic mites. They're smaller than a pinhead and burrow into the skin and lay eggs.
A more severe and uncommon form of the condition occurs when there are many mites in the skin. This is called crusted scabies, and can affect older people and people with certain illnesses such as HIV infection.
Getting scabies is common. It's easily passed from one person to another through close body contact or sexual contact. It's possible for children to get scabies through close body contact.
How do I get it?
Scabies is easily passed from one person to another by close body contact or sexual contact with someone who has scabies.
The mites which cause scabies can be found in the genital area, on the hands, between the fingers, on the wrists and elbows, underneath the arms, on the abdomen, on the breasts, around the nipples in women, on the feet and ankles, and around the buttocks.
The mites can live for up to 72 hours away from the body, so it's possible for scabies to be spread by clothing, bedding and towels.
Signs and Symptoms
Some people won't have any visible signs or symptoms at all, or may not be aware of them.
It can take up to 6 weeks after coming into contact with scabies before signs and symptoms appear. You might notice:
- intense itching in the affected areas which may only be noticed at night, or which becomes worse in bed at night or after a hot bath or shower
- an itchy red rash or tiny spots – sometimes this can look like other itchy conditions such as eczema
- inflammation or raw, broken skin in the affected areas – usually caused by scratching.
Scabies mites are very tiny and impossible to see with the naked eye. Fine silvery lines are sometimes visible in the skin where mites have burrowed.
Sometimes scabies will be noticed during a routine genital or medical examination.
A doctor or nurse can often tell if you have scabies just by looking at the affected areas.
They may gently take a skin flake from one of the areas and look at it under a microscope to see if there's a mite present.
In some cases, treatment will be suggested if scabies is suspected, even if it can't be confirmed
The treatment's simple and involves using a special cream or lotion. The doctor, nurse or pharmacist will advise you on what treatment to use and how to use it.
- You apply the cream or lotion usually to the whole body from the neck downwards. This ideally should be done overnight.
- The treatment should be rinsed off after 12 hours.
- You should wash clothing, bedding and towels in a washing machine on a very hot cycle (60°C or higher) to kill the mites and avoid re-infection.
- You can also buy treatments for scabies from pharmacies. These are useful if you're sure you have scabies and wants to self-treat. The pharmacist will be able to advise if you have any questions, or are unsure how to use the treatment.
- If you decide to treat yourself, you may still want to consider having a sexual health check, to make sure you don’t have a sexually transmitted infection.
- Do tell the doctor, nurse or pharmacist if you are, or think you might be, pregnant or if you're breastfeeding. This will affect the type of treatment you're given.
- There's no evidence that complementary therapies can cure scabies.
- Close contacts in your household should be treated at the same time, as well as your sexual partner, even if they don't have any signs or symptoms.
Further Guidance: Scabies