Scabies is a contagious skin condition. It’s not usually serious, but it does need to be treated, or irritated skin can become infected.
What causes scabies?
Scabies is caused by tiny mites that burrow and lay eggs in the skin.
Anyone can get scabies. It has nothing to do with poor hygiene.
There's a greater chance of getting it if you're regularly having sex or if you're in close contact with lots of other people, for example, in schools, nursing homes or crowded living spaces.
Scabies mites like warm places like skin folds, between the fingers, under fingernails, or around buttock or breast creases. They can also hide under watch straps, bracelets or rings.
Scabies is usually spread through skin-to-skin contact with an infected person, including sexual contact. It's also possible – but rare – for scabies to be passed on by sharing clothing, towels and bedding with someone who's infected.
What are the symptoms?
It can take up to 8 weeks for signs of scabies to appear. During this time, someone with scabies can pass it on without knowing they have it. Scabies is infectious until any mites and eggs are destroyed with treatment.
Symptoms appear after the mites burrow into the skin and lay eggs, and include:
intense itching that's worse at night
rash on areas of skin where the mites have burrowed
The rash can spread across the whole body apart from the head. But older people, young children and people with weakened immune systems may get a rash on their head or neck.
Scabies does not usually cause permanent scars on the skin. But irritation and scratching can lead to infection. If your skin gets infected you’re more likely to get marks that last a long time.
Testing and treatment
You will need to see a GP or sexual health clinician to confirm if you have scabies.
They’ll talk to you about your symptoms and look at your skin. They may also take a skin sample – scraping off a tiny top layer of skin cells. This shouldn’t hurt.
If you or your partner has been diagnosed with genital scabies, it’s a good idea to have a full sexual health check to make sure you don't have any STIs.
Scabies is treated with creams that contain insecticides to kill the scabies mites. You might also be offered treatment to relieve itching. Let your clinician, GP or pharmacist know if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.
Each cream will come with its own instructions. It’s usually applied over the whole body and left on for a few hours while it works. Then you repeat the treatment a week later.
You can usually go back to work or school 24 hours after the first treatment. It can still feel itchy for a while after treatment, but if it lasts longer than 4 weeks, see your doctor.
You should wash all bed linen, nightwear and towels at a temperature above 50°C. Anything you can’t wash you should seal in a plastic bag for at least 72 hours (3 days).
Telling other people
To stop reinfection, everyone in your home and any close contacts should be treated at the same time, even if they don’t have any symptoms.
Anyone you’ve had sexual contact with in the past 8 weeks should also be treated.
Avoid sex and other forms of close bodily contact until all people being treated have completed the full course. And do not share bedding, towels or clothing with anyone if you, or they, have scabies until treatment is completed and the infection has gone.