This factsheet is for people who have scabies, or who would like more information about it.
Scabies is an intensely itchy skin condition that is caused by tiny mites. It’s highly contagious and spreads through close physical contact. With the right treatment, it can be cured quickly.
Scabies is caused by mites called Sarcoptes scabiei. The mites, which are less than half a millimetre long, burrow into the upper layers of your skin where they live and lay their eggs. The saliva and faeces (droppings) of the mites causes an allergic reaction, which results in a rash and intense itching.
In the UK, about one in 1,000 people see their GP about scabies every month. The number of people affected by the condition is rising. It’s particularly common among those who live in cities and mostly affects people during the winter months. Scabies can occur at any age, but it’s most common in children.
There are two types of scabies.
This factsheet is about classical scabies.
The most common symptom of scabies is a pimple-like rash that is intensely itchy. The itching is often worse at night or when your skin is hot, for instance after a bath or shower.
You can get scabies on your hands (particularly between your fingers), wrists, ankles and buttocks. If you are a man, you can get it on your penis or scrotum. If you're a woman, you may get it on the skin of your nipples. As well as itching and redness, you may have small nodules or bumps on your skin, which can sometimes be filled with pus. You may also be able to see tiny burrow marks in your skin. These look like thin, scaly, zigzagging lines that are greyish-white or skin-coloured. The burrow marks are very short in length (less than 1cm), but can most often be seen on the webbing between your fingers and on your hands, feet and wrists. They may, however, be obscured by the rash.
Children can get scabies on the palms of their hands and soles of their feet. In young babies, scabies may trigger widespread eczema, especially on their abdomen (tummy), chest and back. They can also develop pinkish-brown nodules.
If you have scabies for the first time (known as the primary episode), your symptoms may take two to six weeks to appear. However, if you’ve had scabies before, your symptoms may appear within a couple of days of infection.
If you have any of these symptoms, see your GP.
The scabies rash can develop into a skin infection, such as cellulitis, folliculitis, boils or impetigo. If you have eczema or psoriasis, scabies can make your condition worse.
Scabies can leave you with feelings of guilt and shame, but it’s important to remember that the condition doesn’t reflect your personal hygiene.
Rarely, people may start imagining bites or continue to feel itchy even after the infection is cleared – this is known as delusions of parasitosis.
Scabies is highly contagious and is spread easily by direct skin-to-skin contact. However, you’re unlikely to catch it through a brief handshake or a hug. You’re also unlikely to get scabies from clothing or bedding unless it was used by someone with scabies immediately beforehand.
Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she will also ask if any family members, or people you are in close contact with, have recently had an itchy rash. Your GP will look for burrow marks in your skin and may take a skin scraping to look for mites under a microscope.
Scabies is treated with an insecticide cream or lotion. When you are treated for scabies, all your close contacts such as family members or people you live with will also need to be treated at the same time, even if they don't have any symptoms.
Your GP will usually prescribe permethrin (5%) cream or malathion (0.5%) lotion. It’s important to follow the instructions carefully and use the insecticide cream or lotion in the correct way.
Always ask your GP for advice and read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine.
Your skin may continue to feel itchy for two to three weeks after treatment. This is normal and doesn't mean that the treatment hasn't worked. Your GP may recommend crotamiton or hydrocortisone (1%) cream or antihistamine tablets to ease your symptoms. However, if the itching continues beyond this it’s likely you still have scabies and should see your GP. If you have a skin infection, he or she may also prescribe antibiotics.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
A younger healthier looking you. Find out more about our range of non-surgical cosmetic treatments including microdermabrasion and laser hair removal (or call 0845 600 6034.)
See a Private GP in confidence to discuss any concerns you may have about your health or your family's health or call 0845 600 3458 quoting ref. HFS GP .
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.
Produced by Krysta Munford, Bupa Health Information Team, March 2012.