What is scabies? It’s an infection of mites on the human skin! Find out how scabies spreads between people, what the symptoms are, and what to do if you get an infestation.

What Is Scabies?

Scabies is a skin disease caused by the human itch mite (whoa, yes, it’s a real thing). The mite’s scientific name is Sarcoptes scabiei. You can’t actually see the mite, but it burrows into the top layer of your skin and sets up camp. It will settle in and start laying eggs, developing an itchy rash in the process. Even worse, it’s contagious between people who have skin-to-skin contact or even from infested clothing, sheets, or furniture! If that wasn’t bad enough, anyone can get scabies – the mites don’t discriminate based on age, gender, or race.

A magnified image of the scabies mite.
scabies mite

Scabies Basics

While anyone can contract scabies, children, their parents, sexually active young adults (it is also classified as a sexually transmitted disease), and nursing home residents are most susceptible, due to their frequent interactions with other people who may be infected. People who have weakened immune systems may be extra-susceptible. You may be infected and infecting other people without even knowing it. However, there is a silver lining: only humans get this type of scabies – you cannot contract this type of mite from animals (the equivalent mite found in animals is called mange). It also typically takes more than a handshake to pass the mite from one person to another. In general, you must come into extended, skin-to-skin contact with another infected person to contract scabies.

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Well, What Are the Symptoms?

Once a mite has made your skin home, it will take a while before you notice anything. If you have never experienced scabies before, it will probably take 2-6 weeks before you begin to itch; however, if you have had scabies before, it will only take 1-4 days before you begin to scratch. Typical symptoms include lots of itching, especially at night, a rash of little bumps that form a line on the skin, sores, and thick crusts that develop on the skin. This crusted scabies is even more contagious than just ‘regular’ scabies and indicates an extremely widespread infestation. The most prominent areas of the body that become infested are the hands (between the fingers), arms, and skin that may be covered by clothing or jewelry.

What Happens If I Get Infected?

Scabies is usually diagnosed by a painless skin scrape test, and a doctor will look at the sample under a microscope to look for live mites or eggs. If you are unlucky enough to be infested, the doctor will prescribe a medication to you and anyone else who you come into frequent contact with, including people in your household and any sexual partners. Most medicines are topical – applied to the skin like a lotion – and used around bedtime. Possible medications may include forms of permethrin cream, benzyl benzoate lotion, sulfur ointment, crotamiton cream, and lindane lotion – all of which are only available by prescription. Once treated, it will take up to a month for your skin to heal. Those suffering from crusted scabies will likely need multiple treatments to completely eradicate all mites. Thorough washing of all bedding, clothing, and towels is necessary to kill any remaining mites and eggs.

An image representative of what a scabies rash might look like.
scabies rash

Lesson Summary

Scabies is caused by a microscopic mite that burrows into the top layer of human skin and lays eggs. An infestation causes intense itching, a rash, and ultimately sores from frequent scratching. Scabies is extremely contagious and is acquired through skin-to-skin contact. It is likely to spread between all family members living in the same house or between sexual partners. A doctor will perform a skin test to diagnose scabies, and most topical treatments will successfully eradicate the mites within a month. Unfortunately, everyone is susceptible to being infected!

Medical Disclaimer: The information on this site is for your information only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice.