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What is Scabies?

Scabies is caused by the scabies mite or "itch mite". The mites, which are little parasites, burrow under the skin in humans and animals. This takes about three to six weeks and at this stage there are no signs or symptoms to let you know you have been infected. The mites lay their eggs in the burrows and these take about 10 days to hatch.

How will I know if I have scabies?

The most common sign of scabies is an itchy skin rash. The rash is most commonly seen at the sides of fingers, between fingers, the wrists, elbows and the genital skin of the penis, scrotum, and outside of the vagina. The skin rash can look like eczema and can be lumpy and scaly. The itching is usually local to the rash initially but then spreads to the rest of the body. The itching is often worse at night when in bed because the mite is more active in the warmth. The skin reaction is caused by the mites burrowing into the skin where they deposit their faeces. The skin reaction is an 'allergy' to the mites' faeces in your skin. The first infection takes time to show signs due to the burrowing but if you get re-infected itching is much quicker as your body is already sensitised to the mites. 

How do I catch scabies?

Amongst young sexually active adults, sexual transmission of scabies is the most common way of catching it. To catch scabies, it is necessary to have prolonged skin contact to allow the mite to pass between people: that is why spending the night in bed with someone is the most likely factor. Scabies is considered to be a sexually transmitted infection and anyone with this infection should think about having tests for other infections.

Is scabies always sexually transmitted?

No.  Sharing a bed with someone without having sex is known as a way of passing on the infection. It is not uncommon to see whole families develop scabies when they live in close contact with each other. Casual contact with others outside families is less likely to explain transmission but some anecdotal reports suggest transmission following close proximity in situations such as rush-hour public transport like the 'tube'.

How is scabies diagnosed?

Often the signs are obvious and typical so that your doctor will be able to diagnose it by looking at it. It is also easy if other members of your family, or one of your sexual partners has been diagnosed with it already. Sometimes the response to treatment is taken as evidence that the diagnosis was scabies.

If the diagnosis is not certain, your doctor will discuss the possible alternatives and will try to scrape a piece of the skin to see if the mites can be seen under a microscope.

How is scabies treated?

Treatment involves applying a lotion or cream to the whole body from the neck downwards. It is important that any bedding and clothing is changed and washed at the time of treatment.

Close personal contacts (including sexual partners) need to be checked and treated if necessary to avoid re-infection. Sometimes this can mean everybody living in the same house. This means all family members or flatmates.

Can I catch scabies again?

Yes. You do not get immunity to scabies. You can get scabies again from a sexual partner who was not treated in the first place or, if your bedding was not cleaned properly, or if a family member was missed in the treatment plan.

Can I get scabies from my dog?

Yes. Dogs can get scabies too but their mite is a different variety to human mites. There are cases of humans getting dog scabies but the symptoms do not last as long and passing it on to other humans is rare, so it is not as infectious as the human type.

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