Curious to know what scabies is? Wondering why we are talking about the rat from Harry Potter? (who is actually called ‘Scabbers’) Have you just been told you have scabies and don’t know what to expect? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then read on!
This article aims to demystify scabies, what it is, how you get it and, importantly, how it is treated!
So First Off, What Is Scabies?
Scabies is a condition caused by the human itch mite called Sarcoptes scabiei var hominis - this is a fancy Latin term for “human itch mite”. A mite is a tiny bug from the same family as ticks and spiders.
These little mites spread from skin to skin via close contact. When they are on the skin, they burrow into the skin and lay their eggs. This causes itching and a rash, which can take up to six weeks to appear.
How Do You Know If You Have Scabies?
Scabies mites are tiny (less than 0.5mm!) and cannot be seen by the naked eye. While some people might not have any symptoms of scabies, and might not know they have it, most people will have symptoms such as:
- Intense itching, especially at night or after a hot bath or shower
- A raised rash or spots - commonly between your fingers or in the groin creases
- A spreading rash
- Inflammation or broken skin caused by itching
- Fine white lines on the skin where the mites have burrowed
Scabies is diagnosed clinically by a healthcare professional. They will ask you about your symptoms and possibly offer you an examination.
Is There A Test For Scabies?
There is no specific test for scabies; it is normally diagnosed from the symptoms and examination by a healthcare professional. In some cases, a skin sample is taken and looked at under a microscope.
Routine sexually transmitted infection (STI) tests will not detect scabies but are always recommended if you have had a new sexual partner or recent unprotected sexual intercourse. Find out more about STIs by checking out our STI information page.
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How Does Scabies Spread?
Scabies is not specifically a sexually transmitted infection; however, it is transmitted via close contact, so it can spread during sexual intercourse with an infected person. If you are diagnosed with scabies following sexual contact, you should also consider an STI test, particularly if it was with a new sexual partner or unprotected intercourse.
Other ways scabies can be spread are:
- Sharing towels
- Wearing the clothes of a person who has scabies
- Sharing a bed with a person who has scabies
Scabies is commonly found in places where people are in close contact, like university halls, nurseries, prisons and nursing homes.
What Other Things Could Itchy Groin Rashes Be?
There are a variety of other conditions that can cause you to have an itchy skin rash.
These can be sexually transmitted, like genital warts, which may appear as small itchy lumps with surrounding inflammation.
There are also non-sexually transmitted infections, such as thrush and pubic lice, which cause itching in the groin. Other skin conditions such as eczema, dermatitis, and folliculitis can also cause an itch. Other bugs, such as bedbugs and fleas, can also irritate the skin if they cause bites.
If you are experiencing skin itching, always see your GP or healthcare provider.
Do You Need Treatment To Get Rid Of Scabies?
Yes, you will require treatment. Although scabies is not a serious condition, it does need treatment.
Scabies is treated with a cream (e.g. Permethrin) or lotion (e.g. Malathion) that is applied to the whole body, not just the affected areas, and washed off again after 8-12 hours. The treatment is sometimes repeated after one week. This is effective in the vast majority of people, and provided symptoms resolve, no follow-up is needed. This treatment must be obtained from a pharmacy or via prescription. In rare cases where initial treatment has been ineffective, an oral anti-parasitic medication may be used (e.g. ivermectin).
As part of treatment, bedding, clothing, and towels used by infected persons or their close contacts should be decontaminated. Close contacts should be informed and treated too.
How Do I Get Rid Of Scabies From My Clothes And Bed Sheets?
When you or someone you live with has been diagnosed with scabies, you must ensure that all bedding, clothes and towels that have been used by an infected person have been decontaminated. This sounds rather dramatic and difficult to do, but really it is quite simple!
Below are some methods of decontamination:
- Washing clothes, bedding and towels at a high temperature (60°C) and drying in a hot dryer - the high temperatures will kill the scabies mite.
- Getting the items dry cleaned.
- Sealing the items in plastic bags for at least 72 hours - this is because scabies cannot survive for more than 72 hours away from human skin.
Help, I Still Have The Itch, Even After Treatment!
The itching caused by the scabies mite can carry on for up to four weeks after treatment. If the itch becomes unmanageable, see your doctor or pharmacist for an anti-itch cream or antihistamine.
If the itch lasts for over four weeks, see your healthcare provider, as it may be that the treatment has failed, or it may be that you have another condition.
Do I Need To Tell People About Scabies?
Yes. You should inform anyone you’ve had close personal contact with within the last month. This includes sexual partners, household contacts and anyone you have shared bedding, towels or clothing with. You do not need to inform people you have had casual contact with (e.g. handshakes or sitting next to).
When Can I Have Sex Again?
It’s important to avoid all close contact with others, including sexual contact, until you and your contacts have been treated. This is to prevent re-infection.
How To Prevent Yourself From Getting Scabies?
Avoiding close contact with others is the best way to prevent scabies. This may be difficult if you live in university halls or other similar residences. Other ways to prevent scabies are avoiding towel sharing and washing any shared bedding at high temperatures.
Importantly, condoms do not stop you from getting scabies - as they don’t prevent all skin-to-skin contact - but are still very important to prevent you from getting an STI. For more information on condoms, check out our article Types of condoms: what they are, their uses and how to pick the right one.
What If I Get Scabies During Pregnancy?
Scabies and the treatments for scabies are not known to cause any problems to the baby during pregnancy, but it is good to let your midwife know that you have been diagnosed with scabies and get treatment. If you are concerned at all, please seek advice from your healthcare provider.
Can I Catch Scabies From My Pet?
It’s very rare, but humans can contract scabies from pet dogs (Sarcoptes scabiei) and cats (Notoedres cati). These are different strains of scabies from the one which typically causes human scabies and often have milder symptoms. These types of scabies are not spread from person to person, and no other treatment is required other than treating the infected animal.
A Final Reminder!
Scabies is not due to poor hygiene; anyone can get it. It should not be a condition that you are embarrassed or ashamed of.
In summary, scabies is not specifically an STI but can be spread via the close contact that comes with sexual intercourse. It is a common and treatable condition which can be diagnosed through consulting with a healthcare professional. Routine STI testing will not tell you if you have scabies, but if you have recently changed sexual partners or had unprotected sex, you should consider getting tested for other common infections. Here at Yoxly, we make this super easy with our range of at-home testing kits.