Scabies is a skin disease characterized by severe itchy skin and a reddish rash that is contagious from person to person.
Facts You Should Know About Scabies
- Scabies is a contagious skin condition caused by a small mite (Sarcoptes scabiei var. hominis). The mite lays eggs in human skin, which hatch and grow into adult mites. This means that signs and symptoms of the skin condition can last for months or even years.
- Seek medical care if you suspect that you might have scabies.
- Scabies treatment requires prescription medications.
Symptoms and signs of scabies include generalized intense itching. People sometimes call the condition the "seven-year itch." Symptoms and signs of scabies on the skin vary and may include short, linear, or nodular "burrows" between the fingers, tiny red bumps and blisters on the skin, or a widespread, crusted rash. Often, there are no visible skin lesions.
The mite spreads from person to person by skin-to-skin contact. Animals can harbor a similar mite, but when the animal mite passes to people, it cannot reproduce and dies within a few days.
Scabies can affect anyone, but it is particularly common in congested areas, such as nursing homes and hospitals, where it can spread widely.
The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that only prescribed medications be used to treat scabies. Primary care providers or pediatricians treat the majority of uncomplicated scabies infections. In people who have poor immune systems or who are malnourished, scabies can cause a syndrome called "crusted scabies" or "Norwegian scabies," which is highly contagious and is associated with skin thickening and a scaly rash.
What Is Scabies?
Scabies symptoms include extreme itching that is worse at night, pimple-like rash, and others.
- Scabies is a skin disease characterized by severe itchy skin and a reddish rash that is contagious from person to person.
- A mite (Sarcoptes scabiei var. hominis) that burrows into the skin causes scabies.
- Although people can transmit scabies by sexual contact, there is controversy about labeling it a sexually transmitted disease (STD or STI) because it can also be transmitted by nonsexual physical skin-to-skin contact.
How Long Do Scabies Live Without a Human Host?
- The mite can only survive for 3 days in the environment. Once on a human body, the human scabies mite may reproduce; if the infection remains untreated, it can cause symptoms for years.
How Do You Get Scabies?
- Scabies spreads (transmitted) through skin-to-skin contact with an infested person who carries the mite. The mites often begin to cause symptoms first at the site where they enter the body. Thus, skin transmission during sexual intercourse may cause skin lesions on the penis, vaginal area, or groin.
- It is important to point out that scabies is not always a sexually transmitted disease (STD) and may spread through any skin-to-skin contact. However, in young, sexually active individuals, scabies usually spreads by sexual contact.
- Less commonly, scabies infestation can happen through the sharing of clothes and bedding. Theoretically, a person can get scabies from touching something that the mite is on, but that is not a major mode of transmission.
- The mite only lives for 2 to 3 days away from human skin. Human scabies does not spread by contact with animals or pets; however, the human mites may infest pets like dogs and cats and cause itching; the human mites do not multiply on pets and quickly die.
- The mites that cause sarcoptic mange, or dog or pet scabies, only multiply on pets like dogs and cats; although they may cause itching on humans, they do not multiply on humans and soon die.
What Is the Life Cycle of the Scabies Mite?
The life cycle of the scabies mite starts when the female tunnels (burrows) into the skin and deposits her eggs.
- Larvae hatch from the eggs within 3 to 10 days and molt to become nymphs.
- Nymphs mature into adults that deposit additional eggs and live approximately 4 weeks.
- Burrowing and movement of the mites cause intense itching due to a type of allergic reaction to mite proteins.
- If the person has never been exposed to scabies before, he or she may not show symptoms until 4 to 6 weeks after the initial infestation.
- Individuals who have been exposed in the past usually show symptoms within a few days.
What Causes Scabies?
- An eight-legged mite (Sarcoptes scabiei var. hominis) that is less than 0.5 mm long causes scabies.
- Worldwide, about 450 million people are infected each year. In the U.S., there were outbreaks of scabies in 10 schools in Texas and in hospital workers in Charlotte, N.C., in 2015.
- The World Health Organization (WHO) is planning a global program to control scabies.
What Are Risk Factors for Scabies?
The highest risk factor for scabies is skin contact with a person with scabies.
- Transmission of the infection during sex is very common.
- Also included is physical contact (nonsexual) with an infected person or items that have been in contact with the skin of an infected person (for example, clothing, towels, bedding, or even items like chairs or couches). These nonsexual contacts are how one person may infect other family members, such as a baby or child. However, people with STDs are at risk to become infected and then harm the health of others by both sexual and nonsexual transfer of the mite.
- Nonsexual outbreaks can occur. For example, an outbreak occurred in an El Paso, Texas, child care facility and three health care (extended-care) facilities in Dayton, Ohio, in 2017.
What Are Scabies Symptoms and Signs? What Do Scabies Skin Lesions Look Like?
Symptoms occur from 2 to 6 weeks to appear after exposure. They include severe and continuous itching, especially at night.
- The skin may show signs of small insect-type bites, or the lesions may look like pimples, bumps, or blisters, especially around the wrist, elbow, knee, underarm area, groin, or finger webs. The skin may also have redness, rash, or have sores (welts, bumps or nodules, especially in children, termed nodular scabies) due to scratching of the area. Large nodules of 2-20 mm in diameter may appear in infants unable to scratch.
- A burrow (a short S-shaped track that indicates the mite's movement under the skin) may also be visible, especially in the webs of fingers and toes. Grayish-white or skin-colored burrows may be small enough to be overlooked. Thus, scabies also should be considered whenever there is intense itching and/or scratching, even without an obvious rash, bite, or burrow. Ulcers do not frequently form.
- Scabies frequently occur in the crevasses of the body such as between the fingers and toes, the buttocks, the elbows, the waist area, the genital area, and under the breasts in women. The face, neck, head, scalp, palms, soles of the feet, and lips are usually not affected, except in infants or very young children.
- Risk factors such as immune suppression or old age may predispose patients to more extensive disease. In crusted (Norwegian) scabies, a thick, dry, and scaly rash covers the body of the infested person. The rash of crusted scabies may or may not itch, but it contains thousands to millions of mites. Crusted scabies is the most contagious form of scabies and the hardest to treat.
- Many other skin rashes may look like scabies, including allergic drug reactions, contact dermatitis, and viral rashes such as shingles.
When Should Someone Seek Medical Care for Scabies?
You should see a medical professional if you suspect you have scabies because treatment of the condition requires prescription medications. Also, other conditions may cause rashes that itch, and it is important to have the correct diagnosis when considering treatment options.
- When calling to schedule an appointment, be sure to tell your health care provider's staff that you are concerned that you or your child may have scabies.
- If you still have symptoms 2 weeks after treatment, seek a reevaluation by a physician. Sometimes the itching takes a while to go away.
- Reinfection with scabies is possible.
How Do Health Care Professionals Diagnose Scabies?
Most cases of scabies are diagnosed by describing the symptoms to the health care provider who will examine the skin. There is no blood test for scabies, and delays in diagnosis or misdiagnosis are common in low-prevalence areas.
- Sometimes, the health care provider will do a skin scraping to make or confirm the diagnosis. A medical professional places a drop of oil or saline on top of an affected area of skin and then lightly scrapes the area. Then your doctor will place the scraping on a slide to examine under a microscope. The doctor will look for the mite or its eggs or feces.
- The health care provider may perform a felt-tip-marker test by drawing a washable felt-tip marker across the rash and then wiping it off with alcohol. This may help to identify a burrow because the ink penetrates deep into the skin.
- Often, very few mites can be hard to find. Therefore, even if the scrapings are negative, the doctor may still recommend treatment if he or she is very suspicious that scabies is present.
Other conditions that look like scabies
- Other conditions are sometimes confused with scabies. The scabies mite is not related to body lice, although the symptoms may be similar.
- Scabies is sometimes confused with bedbug bites, but in contrast to scabies, bedbugs are visible to the naked eye and can live for long periods without feeding.
- Chiggers are a type of mite that can feed off human blood, but unlike scabies, people acquire chiggers through contact with vegetation and they feed for only a few days.
- Less commonly, the rashes of other skin problems such as ringworm, shingles, eczema, allergic reactions (hives), jock itch, or impetigo may be confused with that of scabies.
Are There Any Home Remedies for Scabies?
Scabies are mites that burrow into the skin, causing intense itching.
Although there is no good evidence that non-prescription medication cures scabies, there are certain things you can do at home to keep from re-infestation of scabies of yourself or your family.
- Wash all clothing, towels, and bed linens that you have used in the last 3 days. Use hot water. You should use the dryer at high heat rather than air-drying. Since the mites can survive on nonliving objects (fomites) for several days, place the objects that are not machine washable (such as coats and stuffed toys) into a bag and store for a week. Dry-cleaning will also kill the mites, so dry-cleaned clothes or other things like blankets that you can dry-clean should be free of scabies.
- Cut your nails, and clean under them thoroughly to remove any mites or eggs that may be present.
- Thoroughly vacuum carpets, furniture, bedding, and car interiors, and throw the vacuum-cleaner bag away when finished.
- Try to avoid scratching. Keep any open sores clean. Antihistamine medications such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl), hydroxyzine (Atarax), cetirizine (Zyrtec), and promethazine (Phenergan) treat the itching. Topical measures to reduce itching such as cool baths or calamine lotion should not be given while the prescription cream is being used because it will wash the cream off or prevent it from getting into the skin.
- Shampoo your hair regularly.
Home remedies such as neem or tea tree oil, hydrogen peroxide, Borax, bleach, olive oil and lemon, Lysol, rubbing alcohol, apple cider vinegar, and clove oil are largely untested and are not recommended as a substitute for prescription medication according to the CDC. The CDC states that no over-the-counter products have been tested or approved to treat scabies.
What Are Scabies Treatment Options?
The first question infested people ask is how to get rid of scabies. Prescription medications (see below) are available, which kill the scabies mite and thus are known as scabicides.
- Treat household members and sexual partners at the same time regardless of whether or not they have symptoms. Treat anyone who has had skin-to-skin contact with the patient in the past month. If a child with scabies attends day care or the affected person is institutionalized (such as in a nursing home or prison), then staff and others in close contact with the person should be treated. It is best to treat everyone simultaneously to minimize the risk that untreated people will re-infest treated people.
- Occasionally, the scratched skin may become infected, and sores may contain pus or become red and warm. This is a separate condition from scabies and is usually a bacterial infection that develops due to scratching or irritation of the infested skin. If this occurs, an oral antibiotic or an antibiotic ointment applied to the area may treat it.
- The itching and rash may last for up to 2 weeks after treatment. If the symptoms last longer, it is possible that the person has been re-infested or that he didn't use the cream appropriately. In some cases, the treatment is repeated after 2 weeks if symptoms have not gone away.
What Medications Treat Scabies?
Follow all instructions from your doctor when using scabies medications. A package insert will provide added information.
- Do not apply topical agents to eyes, face, or mucous membranes.
- Discuss treatment with your doctor if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or are treating your newborn or a toddler.
- A common prescription agent for scabies is termed a scabicide.
- Permethrin 5% cream (Elimite) is the treatment of choice for scabies. Apply permethrin 5% cream to clean, dry skin. For best results, clip and clean all fingernails and toenails. Permethrin is usually left on the skin for 10-14 hours and then washed off in the shower. It is best to apply permethrin at bedtime and then wash it off in the morning.
- Less common prescription agents
- Lindane 1% cream or lotion is an older medication that is rarely used because it is potentially toxic to the nervous system (leading to symptoms such as dizziness or seizures). Some scabies has become resistant to Lindane.
- Ivermectin pill(s) (Stromectol) is an oral medication that is active against several parasites. It is not FDA-approved for use in scabies but has been used in cases with very heavy infestations. Ivermectin is not used in small children or in women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
- Malathion 0.5% lotion (Ovide) is usually used for head lice and is not approved by the U.S. FDA for the treatment of scabies. It is irritating to the skin. It must be used only as directed and should be kept out of the reach of children because ingestion may cause organophosphate poisoning.
- Benzyl benzoate lotion is an older treatment for scabies. It can be irritating to the skin, especially in people who have eczema.
- Crotamiton lotion or cream (Eurax) is approved for use in adults with scabies. Treatment failures with this drug are more common than with permethrin.
- Sulfur-based lotions, creams, or soaps have been used but are less effective than other options. They should not be used in people who are allergic to sulfa.
What Types of Physicians Treat Scabies?
- Most primary care providers (who may be family medicine or internal medicine specialists) and pediatricians treat scabies.
- Dermatologists and pediatric dermatologists may be consulted to treat some patients with complications (for example, Norwegian scabies).
What Follow-up Is Needed for a Scabies Infestation?
- Itching can last for 2 weeks or more after successful treatment and does not necessarily indicate that the treatment failed.
- Repeat examination by a doctor in 2 weeks is recommended if there is persistent itching after treatment.
Is It Possible to Prevent Scabies?
- It is difficult to prevent scabies. If a person has scabies, he should not have close skin-to-skin contact with others until they have been treated.
- If one member of a household has scabies, all other household members, sexual partners, and close contacts should be treated simultaneously.
- Wash clothing, towels, and bedding from an affected person in hot water and dry them in a dryer. If an article cannot be washed this way, it can be stored away from human contact for at least 3 days to eliminate mites because the mites will not survive longer than 3 days without contacting human skin.
- In the hospital, staff should use gloves and gowns when treating patients who have a suspicious rash and itching.
What Is the Prognosis of Scabies?
- Once properly diagnosed, treatment is generally very effective at curing scabies and restoring normal skin health.
- Extensive scratching can cause abrasions on the skin, which may become secondarily infected with bacteria.
- Secondary infections are a significant problem in developing countries and the tropics.
Reviewed on 8/6/2022
Image source: iStock Images
American Academy of Dermatology. "Scabies." <https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/contagious-skin-diseases/scabies#treatment>.
Barry, Megan. "Scabies." Medscape. June 7, 2019. <http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1109204-overview>.
United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Parasites - Scabies." Nov. 2, 2010. <http://www.cdc.gov/parasites/scabies/>.
United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Parasites - Scabies: Treatment." Oct. 31, 2018. <http://www.cdc.gov/parasites/scabies/treatment.html>.
United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Travelers' Health: Scabies." May 31, 2017.