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

Risk groups

People sometimes think scabies is caused by unhealthy living conditions and poor personal hygiene. However, there's no evidence to support this.

Anyone can get scabies, but certain groups are more at risk through being in close contact with lots of other people. High-risk groups include:

  • children – outbreaks of scabies can occur in schools and nurseries
  • parents – from being in close contact with infected children
  • elderly people – who live in nursing homes
  • sexually active people


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

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

Read more about the symptoms of scabies.

Scabies mites

Scabies mites are called Sarcoptes scabiei. They feed using their mouths and front legs to burrow into the outer layer of skin (epidermis), where they lay eggs.

After three to four days, the baby mites (larvae) hatch and move to the surface of the skin, where they mature into adults.

Scabies like warm places, 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.

How scabies is spread

Scabies is usually spread through prolonged periods of skin-to-skin contact with an infected person, or through 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.

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

Read more about the causes of scabies.

Scabies outbreaks

Scabies is widespread in densely populated areas with limited access to medical care, and is most common 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 care homes.

In the UK, most outbreaks of scabies occur in the winter. This may be because people tend to spend more time indoors and closer to each other at this time of year.

It's difficult to know exactly how many cases of scabies there are in the UK. This is because many people don't visit their GP and treat the condition with non-prescription medicines.

Treating scabies

Visit your GP if you think you have scabies. It's not usually a serious condition, but it 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 5% cream is usually recommended as the first treatment. Malathion 0.5% lotion is used if permethrin is ineffective.

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

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 your skin becomes irritated and inflamed through excessive itching.

Crusted scabies is a rare but more severe form of scabies, where a large number of mites are in the skin. This can develop in older people and those with a lowered immunity.

Read more about complications of scabies.

Page last reviewed: 12/08/2014

Next review due: 12/08/2016


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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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