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HealthInfo Canterbury

Overview of scabies

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 can't 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 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. But because of the possible long delay between getting infected and getting symptoms, infected people sometimes don't have any symptoms.

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.

Someone with scabies is also more at risk of getting a skin infection.

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've been off human skin for over two days. But if it's cold they might last up to four days.

Anyone who has scabies – even if they don't 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.

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

Your GP might prescribe antihistamines and topical (rub-on) steroid creams to reduce the itching. For information about using topical steroid creams, see Eczema treatments for adults and Treating eczema in children.

If you have a skin infection, they might also prescribe antibiotics.

As well as treating the symptoms, you need to get rid of scabies from your household. To do this, you need to carefully follow the instructions on the next page.

On the next page: Getting rid of scabies

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Endorsed by Clinical Nurse Specialist, Infection Prevention and Control, Canterbury DHB. Page created November 2018.


Page reference: 519861

Review key: HISNI-49791