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Overview of scabies

Tirohanga whānui ki te waihakihaki

Scabies is a skin condition caused by a parasitic mite (a living thing). Scabies usually produces a very itchy rash.

The scabies mite is so small that it cannot be seen by the naked eye. The female mite burrows under the skin and lives there. It lays eggs and leaves behind poos and chemicals that irritate the skin. The skin becomes inflamed and itchy.

The scabies mite lives on human skin, and doesn't live on cats, dogs or other animals. It can survive for up to four days on other surfaces like bedding or clothing. Most of the time mites will die if they have been off human skin for over two days. But if it's cold they might last up to four days.

Symptoms of scabies

An itchy rash usually develops between a few days and six weeks after a person has caught scabies. The itch mostly affects the arms, legs and trunk. It's usually worse at night or after a hot shower.

The rash commonly appears between the fingers and toes, around the wrists, in the groin, around the nipples and under the armpits. It doesn't usually affect the face and scalp unless the person is a young child or infant. See DermNet for images of scabies rash.

You can be infected with scabies without having any symptoms.

Diagnosing scabies

Scabies is very hard to diagnose because its symptoms can vary widely between people. It can be confused with allergies, fleas, bed bugs, skin infections, eczema or other skin diseases, or reaction to a medication.

Your GP usually diagnoses scabies after examining your skin. Sometimes they might arrange for a skin scraping to be tested.

Treating scabies

Scabies is treated with a combination of cream to kill the scabies mite and getting rid of scabies from the household. See Getting rid of scabies for details of this.

Your GP might also prescribe antihistamines and topical (rub-on) steroid creams to reduce the itching.

Avoiding spreading scabies

Anyone who has scabies – even if they do not have a rash – can pass it on to another person:

If one person in a household has scabies, the rest are also likely to have it.

Brief contact, such as at school or work doesn't usually pass the mite on to others. You're more likely to get scabies if you're in a hospital, rest home or prison.

  HealthInfo recommends the following pages

On the next page: Getting rid of scabies

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed May 2022.


Page reference: 519861

Review key: HISNI-49791