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Scabies Facts

  • 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 condition can last for months or even years.
  • Symptoms and signs of scabies include generalized intense itching; the condition is sometimes called 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 is spread from person to person by skin-to-skin contact.
  • Animals can harbor a similar mite, but when the animal mite is passed 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.
  • 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 Causes Scabies?

Scabies is caused by an eight-legged mite (Sarcoptes scabiei var. hominis) that is less than 0.5 mm long. Worldwide, about 300 million people are infected each year. In the U.S., there have been outbreaks of scabies in 10 schools in Texas and in hospital workers in Charlotte, N.C., in 2015.

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 three to 10 days and molt to become nymphs. Nymphs mature into adults that deposit additional eggs and live approximately four 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 four to six weeks after the initial infestation. Individuals who have been exposed in the past usually show symptoms within a few days.

How Long Do Scabies Live Without a Human Host?

The mite can only survive for three days in the environment. Once on a human body, the mite may reproduce; if the infection remains untreated, it can cause symptoms for years.

Where Does Scabies Come From?

Scabies is spread (transmitted) through skin-to-skin contact with a 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 be acquired through any skin-to-skin 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 two to three days away from human skin. Human scabies is not spread by contact with animals or pets.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 10/29/2015

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Scabies - Symptoms and Signs

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Scabies - Effective Treatments

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Discover if scabies may be prevented.

Is It Possible to Prevent Scabies?

Author: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Editor: Charles Davis, MD, PhD

Scabies occurs when mites of the species Sarcoptes scabiei burrow into the skin, causing a troubling and relentless itching. The itching may persist for about two weeks even if all of the mites are killed. If an individual is known to have scabies and no previous skin-to-skin contact has occurred, prevention can usually be accomplished by avoiding direct skin contact. It is also advisable to avoid contact with bedding, clothing, and sometimes even furniture that has been used by the infested person.

Among young people, skin-to-skin transmission most often occurs during sexual contact, so scabies can be considered a form of sexually transmitted disease. However, other forms of close contact such as hugging may spread the disease. Casual contact such as shaking hands usually will not result in transmission of the mites.

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Scabies »

Human scabies is an intensely pruritic skin infestation caused by the host-specific mite, Sarcoptes scabiei var hominis.

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