Scabies is a contagious skin infection which itches intensely. It is caused by tiny mites called Sarcoptes scabiei, which burrow into the skin. A GP talks about the causes, symptoms and treatment.

Media last reviewed: 18/03/2013

Next review due: 18/03/2015

How common is scabies?

Scabies is widespread in countries where there is a high population density and limited access to medical care. It is endemic (always present) in the following tropical and subtropical areas:

  • Africa
  • Central and South America
  • northern and central Australia
  • Caribbean Islands
  • India
  • Southeast Asia 

In developed countries, scabies outbreaks can sometimes occur in places where there are lots of people, such as schools, nurseries and nursing homes. Sporadic cases of scabies are individual cases unconnected to a specific place.

It is difficult to estimate the exact number of scabies cases in England and Wales because many people do not visit their GP and treat the condition themselves using non-prescription medicines.

Scabies is a contagious skin condition caused by tiny mites which burrow into the skin.

The main symptom of scabies is intense itching that is worse at night. It also causes a skin rash on areas where the mites have burrowed.

Read more about the symptoms of scabies.

How is scabies spread?

Scabies can be spread through:

  • long periods of skin-to-skin contact with an infected person
  • sexual contact with an infected person 

Scabies can also be passed by sharing clothing, towels and bedding with someone who is infected. However, this is less likely to cause an infection than skin-to-skin contact.

It can take up to eight weeks for the symptoms of scabies to appear after initial infection. This is known as the incubation period.

Read more about the causes of scabies.

In the UK, most scabies outbreaks occur during the winter. This may be a result of people spending more time indoors and in closer proximity to each other at this time of year.

Scabies mites

Scabies mites are called Sarciotes scabiei. They feed using their mouths and front legs to dig into the outer layer of the skin (the epidermis), ingesting tissue and fluids as they burrow.

As the mites feed within the skin layer, they lengthen their burrows horizontally by about 0.5mm a day. Females lay two to three eggs a day inside the burrow. After three to four days, the larvae (baby mites) hatch from the eggs and travel to the surface of the skin where they lie in shallow pockets before maturing into adult mites.

Scabies like warm places on the skin, such as skin folds, between the fingers, under fingernails or around the buttock or breast creases. They can also hide under watch straps, bracelets, or rings. 

Read more about the life cycle of the scabies mite.

Treating scabies

You should visit your GP if you think you have scabies. It is not usually a serious condition but does need to be treated.

The two most widely used treatments for scabies are permethrin cream and malathion lotion (brand name Derbac M). Both medications contain insecticides that kill the scabies mite.

Permethrin cream is usually recommended as the first treatment. Malathion lotion is used if permethrin cream proves ineffective.

If your partner has been diagnosed with genital scabies, to avoid re-infection you should visit your nearest sexual health clinic so you can be checked and, if necessary, treated.

You should avoid having sex and other forms of close bodily contact until both you and your partner have completed the full course of treatment.

Read more about diagnosing scabies and treating scabies.

Complications of scabies

Scabies can sometimes lead to a secondary skin infection if the skin becomes irritated and inflamed through excessive itching.

A rare but more severe form of scabies can develop in cases where there are a lot of mites in the skin. This is called crusted scabies and can affect older people and those with a lowered immune system (the body’s natural defence against infection and illness).

Read more about complications of scabies.

Page last reviewed: 28/05/2012

Next review due: 28/05/2014


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The 4 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

ombos said on 21 June 2014

There seems to be much confusion re this little mite, not least within the med profession. If you read the above why does this info different to link to Cambridge hospital Sexual Health Advice Centre? Also there seem to be a very different view on whether skin contact is required or just towels etc. I think some information is very outdated and maybe a new study on this very nasty little mite is somewhat overdue. I'd like to see evidence of the mite upon towels used by someone infested and then for how long is the mite then able to infest someone. The length of time a mite can live off its host must differ from the time it can re-infest? An issue worth a mention on this site is: Some doctors will put on the prescription just 'Lyclear' (the brand name) which contains Permethrin 5%, some pharmacists are then giving out lyclear for headlice which is only Permethrin 1%! Ensure your prescription state permethrin 5% or Lyclear Dermal Cream or it wont kill the mite.

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humbletiff said on 12 July 2013

Would i be able to catch it from a dog?

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Bystander said on 16 February 2010

Can scabies only be transmitted through sexually contact? Ordinary mixing with people would not usually cause it?

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untroubled said on 01 December 2009

if you are treated for scabies can you still be checked for the infestation if the diagnosis was un sure of an infestation in the firs place and just a precautionary measure . this check would be within the 24 hrs of treatment

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