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Scabies - What is scabies?

BMJ Group Medical Reference


Scabies is a skin infection that makes you extremely itchy. It's caused by tiny creatures called mites that live under your skin. Scabies won't go away on its own, so you'll need to see your doctor to get it treated. Because scabies spreads very easily from one person to another, it's important to treat all the people you live with.

We've brought together the best research about scabies and weighed up the evidence about how to treat it. You can use our information to talk to your doctor and decide which treatments are best for you.

Scabies is a skin infection that can make your whole body extremely itchy. It's caused by tiny creatures called mites burrowing under your skin. You might feel upset or embarrassed by the thought of mites living in your skin. But scabies is not a sign of poor hygiene. Anyone can get it.

You won't usually be able to see the mites that cause scabies. They're about the size of a pinhead. They make tunnels under the skin and lay their eggs in them.[1] Sometimes you can see the tunnels. They look like fine silvery lines on your skin.[2][3]

scabies-rash_default.jpgMost people who have scabies have fewer than 12 mites. But people with a severe type of scabies (called Norwegian or crusted scabies) can have thousands of mites.[3] To learn more, see What are the symptoms of scabies?

The mites can only live on people. If they're scratched off, they die after two or three days.[1] Mites can live on sheets, towels and clothes, but not for very long.

Scabies makes you itch because you have an allergic reaction to the mites.[1][2][3][4] But it can take several weeks before this reaction happens and you start to feel itchy.[3]

Scabies spreads very easily from one person to another. You can catch it by touching someone who's infected. But you need to touch them for quite a long time. So you won't usually catch scabies by shaking someone's hand. But you can catch it by holding hands or from a sexual partner. You can also get scabies by sharing clothes, towels, and bedding with an infected person. But you're less likely to catch scabies this way than from touching someone.[2][3] Once you have scabies you can pass it on to other people.

Because it spreads so easily, once someone in your household has scabies, it's likely that other people will have it too.

Some people are more likely to catch scabies because they're in close contact with lots of other people. This includes:

  • Children (nurseries and schools sometimes have outbreaks of scabies)

  • Young mothers

  • Sexually active young adults

  • Elderly people in nursing homes.


For references related to Scabies click here.
Last Updated: June 21, 2012
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.
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