What is scabies?

Scabies is a contagious and very itchy skin condition caused by tiny parasitic mites. The mites are smaller than a pinhead, burrow into the skin and lay eggs. It’s a common condition with no scientific evidence relating it to personal hygiene. People shouldn’t feel embarrassed getting advice.

A GP talks about the causes, symptoms and treatment of scabies.

What are the symptoms?

It can take up to eight weeks after coming into contact with scabies for symptoms appear. These can include:

  • Intense itching that gets worse at night, after a hot bath or shower
  • A red rash, or tiny spots that may develop into crusty sores through scratching
  • Raise red lumps in the genital areas

Sometimes it can be difficult to spot because the rash can look like other itchy conditions like eczema.

How do you get it?

Scabies can be caught through close skin-to-skin contact with someone who is currently infected with the mites such as when you have sex. While rare, scabies can also be passed on through sharing clothing, towels and bedding with someone who is infected.

How do you prevent it?

The best way to avoid getting scabies is to avoid direct skin-to-skin contact with someone who has scabies and to avoid sharing their personal items like beddings, towels and clothes.

Although we recommend condoms for all sex they will not protect you against scabies if the mites are present in the public area not covered by a condom or elsewhere on the skin.

How do you get tested?

There are no tests available to diagnose scabies but your doctor or nurse will normally be able to tell just by looking at the affected areas.

What treatment is available?

Your doctor or nurse will usually recommend a cream or lotion, applied to the whole body from the neck down, left on for 24 hours and repeated again seven days later.

Clothing, bedding and towels should be washed on a hot cycle. Items that cannot be washed at high temperatures can be sealed in a plastic bag and left for four weeks to suffocate the mites.

Sexual partners and close household contacts should be checked for scabies and may be advised to treat themselves. You should avoid having sex, close body contact or sharing personal items like towels until you have completed your course of treatment.

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