Scabies is an itchy skin condition caused by a tiny burrowing mite called Sarcoptes scabiei. Intense itching occurs in the area where the mite burrows. The urge to scratch may be especially strong at night.
Scabies is contagious and can spread quickly through close physical contact in a family, child care group, school class, nursing home or prison. Because scabies is so contagious, doctors often recommend treatment for entire families or contact groups.
Scabies can be readily treated. Medications applied to your skin kill the mites that cause scabies and their eggs. But you may still have some itching for several weeks after treatment.
Scabies signs and symptoms include:
The burrows or tracks typically appear in folds of skin. Though almost any part of the body may be involved, in adults and older children scabies is most often found:
In infants and young children, common sites of infestation usually include the:
If you've had scabies before, signs and symptoms may develop within a few days of exposure. If you've never had scabies, it can take as long as six weeks for signs and symptoms to begin. You can still spread scabies even if you don't have any signs or symptoms yet.
Talk to your doctor if you have signs and symptoms that may indicate scabies.
Many skin conditions, such as dermatitis or eczema, are associated with itching and small bumps on the skin. Your doctor can help determine the exact cause and ensure that you receive proper treatment. Bathing and over-the-counter preparations may ease itching, but they won't eliminate scabies.
The eight-legged mite that causes scabies in humans is microscopic. The female mite burrows just beneath your skin and makes a tunnel where it deposits eggs.
The eggs hatch, and the mite larvae work their way to the surface of your skin, where they mature and can spread to other areas of your skin or to the skin of other people. The itching of scabies results from your body's allergic reaction to the mites, their eggs and their waste.
Close physical contact and, less often, the sharing of clothing or bedding with an infected person can spread the mites.
Animals and humans all are affected by their own distinct species of mites. Each species prefers one specific type of host and doesn't live long away from that preferred host.
Humans may have a temporary skin reaction from contact with the animal scabies mite. But people generally can't develop full-blown scabies from this source, as they might from contact with the human scabies mite.
Vigorous scratching can break your skin and allow a secondary bacterial infection, such as impetigo, to occur. Impetigo is a superficial infection of the skin that's caused most often by staph (staphylococci) bacteria or occasionally by strep (streptococci) bacteria.
A more severe form of scabies, called crusted scabies, may affect certain high-risk groups, including:
Crusted scabies, also called Norwegian scabies, tends to make skin crusty and scaly, and affects large areas of the body. It's very contagious and can be hard to treat.
Normally, someone with scabies has about 10 to 15 mites. In contrast, someone with crusted scabies may be infested with millions of mites.
To prevent re-infestation and to prevent the mites from spreading to other people, take these steps:
To diagnose scabies, your doctor examines your skin, looking for signs of mites, including the characteristic burrows. When your doctor locates a mite burrow, he or she may take a scraping from that area of your skin to examine under a microscope. The microscopic examination can determine the presence of mites or their eggs.
Scabies treatment involves eliminating the infestation with medications. Several creams and lotions are available with a doctor's prescription.
Your doctor will likely ask you to apply the medication to your whole body, from the neck down, and leave the medication on for at least eight to 10 hours. Some treatments require a second application, and treatments need to be repeated if new burrows and a rash appear.
Because scabies spreads so easily, your doctor will likely recommend treatment for all household members and other close contacts, even if they show no signs of scabies infestation.
Medications commonly prescribed for scabies include:
Although these medications kill the mites promptly, you may find that the itching doesn't stop entirely for several weeks.
Doctors may prescribe other topical medications, such as sulfur compounded in petrolatum, for people who don't respond to or can't use these medications.
Itching may persist for some time after you apply medication to kill the mites. These steps may help you find relief from itching:
Make an appointment with your family doctor or pediatrician if you or your child has signs and symptoms common to scabies.
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment and know what to expect from your doctor.
Below are some basic questions to ask your doctor about scabies.
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may reserve time to go over any points you want to talk about in-depth. Your doctor may ask:
In the time leading up to your appointment, try at-home and over-the-counter (OTC) remedies to help reduce itching. Cool water, antihistamines and calamine lotion may provide some relief. Ask your doctor what OTC medications and lotions are safe for your child.
© 1998-2021 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved.