Scabies is a skin infestation caused by a mite known as Sarcoptes scabiei. This causes an itchy rash to form on your skin.

Untreated, these microscopic mites can live on your skin for months. They reproduce on the surface of your skin and then burrow into it to lay eggs.

Read on to learn more about scabies, its symptoms, and treatment.

There are approximately 200 million cases of scabies in the world at any given time. It’s a highly contagious condition that passes through direct skin contact.

Recognizing scabies bites and the distinctive rash can help you find treatment faster. The raised rash may be skin-colored, red, brown, or violet, depending on your skin tone. General inflammation caused by the mites may appear red on lighter skin tones and gray on darker skin tones.

After the initial exposure to scabies, it can take 2–5 weeks for symptoms to appear. The symptoms usually develop more quickly in people who’ve had scabies before, often as soon as 1–4 days after exposure.

The hallmark symptoms of scabies include a rash and intense itching that gets worse at night.

The rash itself can consist of:

Common sites for scabies include the:

  • wrist
  • elbow
  • armpit
  • nipple
  • penis
  • waist
  • buttocks
  • area between the fingers

The burrow tracks of the mite can sometimes be seen on the skin. They may appear as tiny raised or discolored lines.

Scabies is the result of an infestation of tiny, eight-legged mites. The mites burrow into the top layer of your skin to live and feed. Female mites lay eggs. Your skin reacts to the mites and their waste, and you develop an itchy rash.

These mites pass easily between people. Direct skin-to-skin contact is the most common way the infestation is spread. The mites can also be spread through infested:

  • furniture
  • clothes
  • bedding

Can you get scabies from animals?

Animals don’t spread the type of scabies that affect people. A different type of scabies mite can affect your pets, which causes a condition called mange.

There’s only one type of mite that causes a scabies infestation in humans. However, these mites can cause several types of infestations.

  • Typical scabies: This infestation is the most common and causes an itchy rash on the hands, wrists, and other common spots.
  • Nodular scabies: This type of scabies may develop as itchy, raised bumps or lumps, especially around your genitals, armpits, or groin.
  • Norwegian scabies: Some people with scabies may develop another form of infestation known as Norwegian scabies or crusted scabies. This is a more severe and extremely contagious type of scabies. People with crusted scabies develop thick crusts of skin that contain thousands of mites and eggs.

Crusted scabies usually develops in people with weakened immune systems. This includes people who are:

Scabies is highly contagious and can easily lead to a community outbreak. In rare cases, bacterial infections of scabies sores can cause serious complications like:

Persistent itching from scabies may lead to insomnia.

A doctor will likely be able to diagnose scabies simply by performing a physical exam and inspecting your affected area of skin. In some cases, the doctor may want to confirm the diagnosis by removing a mite from your skin with a needle.

Other tests doctors may use to diagnose scabies include tissue biopsies and ink tests to highlight burrow paths.

Treatment for scabies usually involves getting rid of the infestation with prescription ointments, creams, and lotions that can be applied directly to the skin. Oral medications are also available.

Ointments, creams, and lotions for scabies

A doctor will probably instruct you to apply the medication at night when the mites are most active. You may need to treat all of your skin from the neck down. The medication can be washed off the following morning.

Some common medications used to treat scabies include:

  • 5% permethrin cream
  • 25% benzyl benzoate lotion
  • 10% sulfur ointment
  • 10% crotamiton cream
  • 1% Lindane lotion

Medications for scabies itch

A doctor may also prescribe additional medications to help relieve some of the bothersome symptoms associated with scabies. These medications include:

  • antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or pramoxine lotion to help control the itching
  • antibiotics to kill any infections that develop as a result of constantly scratching your skin
  • steroid creams to relieve swelling and itching

More aggressive treatment may be needed for severe or widespread scabies. An oral tablet called ivermectin (Stromectol) can be given to people who:

  • don’t see an improvement in symptoms after initial treatment
  • have crusted scabies
  • have scabies that covers most of the body

Some traditional scabies treatments can cause unwanted side effects, such as:

  • a burning sensation on the skin
  • redness or irritation
  • swelling
  • numbness or tingling

While these side effects are typically temporary, they may be uncomfortable.

Common natural treatments for scabies include:

  • tea tree oil
  • aloe vera
  • capsaicin cream
  • essential oils
  • soaps

Learn more about natural remedies for scabies here.

Scabies is highly contagious. It can be spread in the following ways:

  • prolonged skin-to-skin contact, such as holding hands
  • intimate personal contact, such as having sexual intercourse
  • sharing clothing, bedding, or towels that have been used by someone with a scabies infection

Since scabies is mostly transmitted through direct physical contact, the infestation can easily be passed on to family members, friends, and sexual partners. The infestation may also spread quickly in settings where many people are in close contact for long periods, such as schools.

The best way to prevent getting scabies is to avoid direct skin-to-skin contact with a person known to have scabies. It’s also best to avoid unwashed clothing or bedding that’s been used by a person with scabies.

Scabies mites can live for 2–3 days after falling off your body, so you’ll want to take certain precautions to prevent another infestation. Make sure to wash all of the following in hot water that reaches 122°F (50°C):

  • clothing
  • bedding
  • towels
  • pillows

Below are frequently asked questions regarding scabies.

Who can get scabies?

Anyone can get scabies. Getting mites also has nothing to do with your level of personal hygiene, but people who live in close, crowded environments, like college dormitories, may be more likely to get scabies.

Can you see scabies mites?

Scabies mites aren’t visible to the human eye and reach a maximum length of about 0.45 millimeters (1/56th of an inch), or about the size of a pin tip.

How long does scabies last?

Scabies mites can live on a person for 1–2 months.

Scabies vs. bedbugs

Scabies and bedbugs feed off the human body. One does it from outside your body (bedbugs), while the other does it from inside (scabies).

Scabies are microscopic mites that burrow into your skin to live and lay eggs. When bedbugs bite, you often see clusters of bites. Each cluster usually contains three to five bites that appear in a zigzag pattern.

Will scabies go away on its own?

Scabies does not go away on its own and must be medically treated with prescription medication.

How do you know if you have scabies?

If you have scabies, your itching spots or rash may appear red, brown, or black depending on your skin tone, and it will itch more at night. In most cases, the rash will spread across your body. That said, it can be hard to tell scabies from other conditions with similar symptoms, so seeing a doctor for a diagnosis is always a good idea.

Scabies is a skin infestation from tiny mites that can cause skin discoloration, swelling, and severe itching.

The Sarcoptes scabiei mites can pass through direct contact with scabies sores, or through communal surfaces, meaning scabies is often more common in close-knit living quarters such as dorm rooms.

Topical ointments and oral anti-inflammatories can often treat scabies and its symptoms.

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