What is scabies?

A photo of Naveen Puri
Medical Director, Bupa UK Insurance
03 May 2022
Next review due May 2025

Scabies is a common skin condition which happens when tiny insects called mites burrow into your skin. The mites lay eggs in your skin. This can make your skin feel very itchy. Scabies can be passed easily from person to person and spreads mostly through close human skin contact. Here I talk about what causes scabies, its symptoms, and how it can be treated.

doctor talking to a patient

How do you get scabies?

Scabies is caused by tiny parasites called mites. They burrow into your skin and lay eggs. Your immune system (the system of your body that fights off harmful diseases) reacts to this by causing inflammation. This can make your skin feel itchy and cause a rash. Scabies affects both adults and children. You can get scabies if:

  • you’ve been closely touching another person with scabies
  • you had sexual contact with a person who has scabies, even when using a condom

You are unlikely to get scabies from shaking someone’s hand. You’re also not likely to get scabies from clothing or towels. On rare occasions you can get scabies from pets. Scabies is more common in crowded living spaces (nursing homes, prisons, barracks).

You’re more likely to experience scabies during the winter. This is because mites survive better when it is cooler. If you have a weak immune system, for example a result of HIV, you may develop crusted scabies. Crusted scabies is similar to normal scabies but is a lot more contagious.

What are the signs of scabies?

The main symptom of scabies is severe itching, especially at night. This can happen 3-6 weeks after you’ve come into contact with scabies. If you’ve already had scabies in the past then scabies symptoms will appear even earlier.

You might see lines on the surface of your skin which is where the mites have burrowed in. If you experience itching, you might develop a rash and see red marks or bumps appear on your skin. A scabies rash can appear anywhere on your body, but you might find it:

  • between your fingers
  • on the sides of fingers
  • under your fingernails
  • in your belly button
  • around your waist
  • on or around genitalia (your penis or scrotum if you have them)
  • on your bottom
  • on your feet

Children may also get scabies rash on their back and head.

Will scabies go away on its own?

If left untreated, your scabies symptoms may get worse. You should talk to a doctor if you think you have scabies. They can help you to get your scabies treated. People that you live with, as well as anyone you have had sex, with should also have treatment.

A doctor can tell you if you have scabies by asking about your itching and looking at your skin. They may need to take skin scrapings to check for mites, but this is often not needed. It’s best to avoid close contact with people until you have finished treatment.

How do you treat scabies?

Scabies treatment will include topical creams that you apply to your whole body. Scabies creams are also called insecticides. This type of cream kills the mites that cause scabies. The most common scabies creams include permethrin and malathion which a doctor can prescribe for you. If you’re given cream to treat scabies but the itching doesn’t go away in 2-4 weeks, let your doctor know.

You should also wash bedding, clothes and anything else that has been on your skin at very high temperatures (50 degrees or above). The heat from the high temperature will kill the mites. If you’re unable to wash your bedding and clothes, put them in a sealed bag for at least 72 hours to allow the mites to die.

Is scabies contagious?

Yes. Scabies spreads from person to person through close skin contact. When you spend a long time touching a person with scabies, you might get infected. You can reduce the spread of scabies by avoiding contact with others and regularly washing. This will help your scabies to clear up and keep others safe.

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A photo of Naveen Puri
Dr Naveen Puri
Medical Director, Bupa UK Insurance

    • 2016 UK national guideline on the management of scabies. British Association for Sexual Health and HIV., published 2016
    • Scabies. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries., last revised November 2017
    • Scabies. Patient., last edited 21 Jul 2021
    • Scabies. BMJ Best Practice., last updated April 2022
    • Salavastru CM, Chosidow O, Boffa MJ et al. European guideline for the management of scabies. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2017 Aug;31(8) 1248-1253

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