What Is Scabies? - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

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.

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.

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