What is scabies?

Scabies is a highly contagious skin condition that’s caused by a very small mite called Sarcoptes scabiei. These mites can burrow into your skin and lay eggs. When the eggs hatch, the new mites crawl onto your skin and make new burrows.

This causes intense itching, especially at night. You might also notice thin tracks of small, red blisters or bumps. Others develop a rash in areas of folded skin, such as the buttocks, knees, arms, breasts, or genitals.

While scabies can be spread through sexual contact, it’s usually passed through nonsexual skin-to-skin contact.

Read on to learn more about how scabies is spread and how long it’s contagious.

Scabies can be transmitted through close body contact or sexual contact with someone who is infected. You can also get scabies if you’re exposed for a long period of time to infested furniture, clothing, or linens. It’s also sometimes confused with pubic lice because both conditions cause similar symptoms.

But unlike other sexually transmitted infections, condoms, dental dams, and methods of protection aren’t effective against scabies. If you or your partner has scabies, you’ll both need to get treated to avoid transmitting the condition back to each other.

Scabies is typically spread by direct skin-to-skin contact with someone who has scabies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, contact usually needs to be prolonged to spread scabies. This means that you’re unlikely to get it from a quick hug or handshake.

This kind of close contact tends to happen among people within the same household or in:

  • nursing homes and extended care facilities
  • hospitals
  • classrooms
  • daycares
  • dorms and student residences
  • gym and sports lockers
  • prisons

In addition, sharing personal items that come into contact with your skin, such as clothing, towels, and bedding, can also spread scabies to others in some cases. But this is more likely in cases of crusted scabies, a type of scabies that can affect people who have a weakened immune system.

Scabies requires treatment, usually with a prescription cream or lotion. Recent sexual partners and anyone who lives with you will also need to be treated, even if they don’t show any signs or symptoms of scabies.

Your doctor will likely tell you to apply the medication over all of your skin, from your neck to your feet, after a bath or shower. Some medications can also be safely applied to your hair and face.

Keep in mind that these topical treatments often need to be left on for at least 8 to 10 hours at a time, so avoid putting it on before taking a shower or bath. You may need to do several treatments, depending on the type of medication used or if new rashes appear.

Common topical medications used to treat scabies include:

  • permethrin cream (Elmite)
  • lindane lotion
  • crotamiton (Eurax)
  • ivermectin (Stromectol)
  • sulfur ointment

Your doctor may recommend other medications and home remedies to treat symptoms caused by scabies, such as itching and infection.

These may include:

  • antihistamines
  • calamine lotion
  • topical steroids
  • antibiotics

You can also try these home remedies for scabies.

To kill mites and prevent getting scabies again, the American Academy of Dermatology also recommends that you wash all clothing, bedding, and towels, as well as vacuum your entire home, including upholstered furniture.

Mites don’t usually survive longer than 48 to 72 hours off a person and will die if exposed to a temperature of 122°F (50°C) for 10 minutes.

If you’ve never had scabies before, your symptoms might take four to six weeks to start appearing. But if you’ve had scabies, you’ll typically notice symptoms within a few days. Scabies is contagious, even before you notice symptoms.

Mites can live on a person for as long as one to two months, and scabies is contagious until treated. The mites should begin to die within a few hours of applying the treatment, and most people can return to work or school 24 hours after treatment.

Once scabies is treated, your rash may continue for three or four more weeks. If you still have a rash four weeks after completing treatment or a new rash develops, see your doctor.

Scabies is a highly contagious skin condition that can affect anyone. While it’s spreadable through sexual contact, it’s usually spread through nonsexual skin-to-skin contact.

In some cases, sharing bedding, towels, and clothing can also spread it. If you have symptoms of scabies or think you may have been exposed to mites, see your doctor as soon as possible so you can start treatment and avoid spreading it to others.