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What is scabies?

Woman itches rash on her wrist
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Scabies is an itchy skin condition caused by tiny mites. Because scabies is highly contagious, it’s important to seek treatment quickly. In this article you will find what causes scabies, how to recognise it, and how (and who) to treat it.

What causes scabies?

Scabies is caused by tiny mites on the skin. They infest the host, laying eggs in burrows under the skin's surface. The eggs hatch and the mites can migrate and live anywhere on the body. They are often found in folds of skin - typically in between fingers and creases of the elbows and knees. Other common places include the genitals, buttocks, breasts, navel, and neck.

What do scabies look like?

The scabies mite itself is hard to spot with the naked eye. A tiny, eight-legged mite called Sarcoptes scabiei, the first indication of a scabies infestation is usually through the symptoms they cause.

Symptoms of scabies

Once a person becomes infested, they may not show symptoms immediately. Symptoms include:

  • A rash. This is usually the first symptom to appear. Your skin will look red, raised and pimply or spot-like in appearance. (The colour may appear different, depending on skin tone.) The rash may start off in one area - between the fingers, for example - but will then spread over the body.
  • Itching. The rash can be incredibly itchy, this is often worse at night.
  • Blisters or sores. The rash may blister or develop sores. This is especially likely if the rash is being scratched due to intense itching.
  • Burrow track. The female scabies mite creates a burrow to lay eggs in. This leaves behind a raised line along the surface of the skin. This may be red, or skin-coloured in appearance, and/or have a red spot at one end.

The scabies rash can often appear similar to other skin conditions, such as ringworm. If you are experiencing rashes, itching or dry skin, consult your doctor or pharmacist for advice and diagnosis.

Image of a scabies rash on man's arm

How is scabies spread?

Scabies is spread by physical contact. This means that it can be spread from any prolonged contact with an infected person. Scabies can spread rapidly in a setting where people are in close proximity, such as nursing homes, prisons, hospitals and nurseries/childcare settings.

Other ways scabies can spread include:

Note that whilst animals can carry scabies, they are of a different variety. Therefore, humans cannot get scabies from animals.

How can you prevent scabies from spreading?

Scabies can spread to anyone, and catching scabies is not an indication of poor hygiene. The incubation period (the time between being infected and the appearance of first symptoms) is around 6-8 weeks:

  • The affected person should seek treatment quickly, as scabies does not go away by itself
  • Wash clothing, bedding, soft furnishings on a hot cycle
  • For items that cannot be washed, put them in an airtight container/bag until the mites have died - this can take up to seven days
  • Notify sexual partners and household members - it is recommended that all members of the household are treated, as the incubation period means they may not realise they too are affected
  • For young children, notify staff in the nursery/school setting as close contact between young children is common
  • Avoid sexual contact, and close physical contact until treatment is complete
  • Don’t share bedding, clothing, towels or soft toys with a person who has scabies
  • Maintain good hygiene practice with hand wash or hand sanitiser after contact to minimise the risk of illnesses and infections

Treatment for scabies

Your pharmacist can help to treat scabies:

  • A topical lotion will be recommended to apply all over
  • Discuss with your pharmacist any other conditions, or if you are pregnant or breastfeeding; this may affect the choice of treatment you will need to use.
  • Treat everyone in your household
  • If necessary, treatment may be repeated in seven days
  • You/your child can typically return to work/school 24 hours after treatment, but avoid prolonged close contact
  • The itchiness may remain for a while after treatment

How to relieve a scabies itch?

As scabies treatment does not offer relief for itchy skin, you may wish to apply calamine lotion, or a cream such as hydrocortisone cream. An antihistamine can help relieve itchiness and may help you to sleep.

Some antihistamines cause drowsiness and should not be used if you’re planning to drive or operate machinery. Check with your pharmacist to find the best option for you.

Should I go to the doctor for scabies?

Your pharmacist should be able to help you treat scabies. However, the scabies rash can often look like other skin conditions. If you are not sure which skin condition you have, you can see your GP. They may take a small skin sample to definitively diagnose scabies.

If the initial treatment for scabies is not successful, you should see a GP.

The itchy rash can sometimes blister or become sore with repeated scratching. If you are experiencing weeping blisters, sores, or you suspect infection, see your GP.

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Scabies is a common, but treatable condition. It won’t go away on its own, so make sure to seek treatment and advice. We have a range of products to help you treat the cause of scabies rash and soothe the associated itching.

Of course, any rash appearing on the skin can be worrying, but by quickly identifying what you are experiencing, you can access the right treatment, fast. Read our guide to other skin conditions such as seborrhoeic dermatitis, keratosis pilaris and textile dermatitis for more information on identifying these conditions.