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What is scabies?

Scabies is a very itchy skin condition caused by a tiny mite (bug).

Scabies is contagious and spreads quickly. If you have scabies, the whole family may need to be treated.

What are the symptoms of scabies?

Scabies causes intense itching and sometimes a rash. It looks like tiny red lumps and threadlike tracks on the skin. The rash is due to an allergic reaction to the mite.

The scabies mite prefers to burrow and lay its eggs in skin that is soft and protected. So common areas to get scabies are the wrists, between the fingers, folds of the armpit and elbow, the groin and the creases of the bottom.

The itching is usually worse at night or after a hot bath or shower. The itching and scabies rash may not develop for up to one month after you have been infected with the mites.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use our rashes and skin problems Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes scabies?

Scabies is caused by a tiny mite called ‘Sarcoptes scabiei’. The mites burrow under the skin to lay eggs. The newly hatched mites are spread over the body by scratching.

Anyone can get scabies regardless of age, gender or standards of personal hygiene.

When should I see my doctor?

See a doctor if you have very itchy skin or you have a rash that doesn’t go away. There are many other skin conditions that can cause itchy skin.

Always see a doctor if you develop very itchy skin when you’re pregnant.

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How is scabies diagnosed?

Your doctor will diagnose scabies based on what the scabies rash looks like and check for burrows in the web-space between the fingers. They may take a small scraping from your skin to confirm the diagnosis.

How is scabies treated?

Scabies is easily treated with permethrin cream or lotion that you can buy from pharmacies. It’s important to follow the directions on the bottle carefully. Speak to your pharmacist to make sure you buy the correct lotion.

It works best if you apply the lotion after a shower. Use warm water and gently scrub the skin, then pat it dry and apply the lotion.

You may need more than one application. The lotion must be applied to the whole body so you may need assistance to get to hard-to-reach areas.

The itching might continue for 4 to 6 weeks after treatment. This is often due to an allergic reaction to the mites, or because the treatment has given you contact dermatitis. If the itching does not clear up in a few weeks, see your doctor. It could be that you have been re-infested or the treatment did not work properly.

Can scabies be prevented?

There are steps you can take to prevent spreading scabies to others:

  • Try not to scratch the skin as this can cause the infestation to spread to other parts of the body and may also cause scarring.
  • Scabies can live outside the human body for about 1 day, so it is possible to get scabies from infected bed linen and clothes. Always maintain personal hygiene and keep bed linen and clothes clean.
  • Do not share personal items such as towels, bed linen and clothing items until the infestation has cleared.
  • If you develop scabies, it is important that all members of your household, especially sexual partners, are treated.
  • It is best for individuals who are affected to remain home from work, school or day care, until 24 hours after treatment when they are no longer infectious.

Here’s a list of common childhood illnesses, including scabies, and their recommended exclusion periods.

Complications of scabies

Scabies is usually treated effectively with no long-term complications.

Scratching the skin can lead to infections like impetigo or cellulitis. If you damage the skin you may get permanent marks.

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Last reviewed: August 2021

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