Health conditions


  • Scabies is a condition caused by tiny mites living under the skin that can cause red, itchy bumps or blisters.
  • Scabies is passed on by skin-to-skin contact or by sharing clothing, towels and bedding with someone who has scabies.
  • If you get scabies it is important for you, people in your household, and any sexual partners to get treatment.
  • Treatment is a cream or lotion and is available without a prescription from pharmacies.

The mite that causes scabies in humans is the Sarcoptes scabiei var. hominis mite. The scabies mites burrow into the upper layer of the skin where they live, reproduce, and lay eggs. Scabies is too small to be seen with the naked eye.

Scabies is found worldwide and can affect all people. It can spread very quickly in places where people are close together and skin-to-skin contact happens often. Places such as nursing homes, care facilities, prisons, childcare settings and even homes where many people live together are often sites where scabies can spread quickly.

How do you get scabies?

Scabies is usually spread by direct, prolonged, skin-to-skin contact, for example, when cuddling or having sex, with a person who has scabies. A quick handshake or hug usually does not spread scabies. It can also be spread through sharing a bed with a person who has scabies.

Scabies can survive away from a human body for 24 hours. This means that scabies can be passed on by sharing clothing, a towel or bedding that has been used by a person who has scabies.

Human scabies do not survive on animals. This means that it cannot be passed to pets.

How can you prevent scabies?

You can reduce the likelihood of getting scabies by:

  • not sharing clothes or towels that have been used by other people (unless they have been washed)
  • changing and washing bed linen regularly (particularly if you are sharing your bed with other people)
  • encouraging people close to you to see a health worker if they get itchy skin or a skin rash
  • being aware of your own skin. If you get itchy skin or a rash that is not common for you, see a health worker and try and avoid skin-to-skin contact with other people.

What are the signs and symptoms?

Common signs and symptoms of scabies include:

  • intense itching, especially at night or after a warm shower or bath
  • a rash of small, red, pimple-like lumps on the skin. This may include tiny blisters and scaley skin.

The rash may cover lots of your body or just be limited to small parts of the body. Common areas include:

  • wrist
  • elbow
  • armpit
  • in between the fingers
  • nipples or breasts
  • penis
  • waist
  • bottom (bum).

For infants and very young children, the head, face, neck, palms, and soles of the feet are often affected. These parts of the body are not usually affected in older children and adults.

It may take as long as 4 to 6 weeks for symptoms to begin. Scabies mites can be passed on during this time even without any symptoms. If you have had scabies before, symptoms usually appear much sooner (1 to 4 days).

How do you know if you have scabies?

The best way to know if you have scabies is to see a health worker. They will look for tiny burrows that can sometimes be seen on the skin.

These burrows appear as tiny raised and crooked greyish-white or skin-coloured lines on the skin surface. They may be difficult to find as there are often only 10-15 mites on each person.

How is scabies treated?

Scabies treatment is a cream or lotion that goes on the skin. You can get the treatment from a pharmacy or health service.

All people in your household and your sexual partners will also need to get treated. It is best to treat all the people in your household at the same time, and wash all clothes, bed linen and towels to help stop you from getting it again (reinfestation).

Tips for treatment

  • Apply a thin layer of the treatment to your whole-body surface, from the neck down as the treatment can irritate your eyes, nose and mouth. A pastry brush or soft paint brush may make it easier to apply.
  • Creams and lotions are better absorbed after a shower and towel drying.
  • Pay particular attention to the areas between your fingers, under your nails, the soles of your feet and between the cheeks of your bottom.
  • If possible, ask someone else to apply it for you. This will make sure your whole body surface is covered.
  • Do not wash your hands after treatment.
  • Leave treatment on the body for 8 to 24 hours. Cream treatments require to be left on the skin for 8-12 hours, lotion treatments require to be left on the skin for 24 hours (follow the instructions on the package) and then wash thoroughly. People often choose to apply the treatments in the evening and leave it on overnight.
  • Re-apply the treatment to any area that has been washed within 12 to 24 hours.
  • If the pimples or spots become infected, antibiotics may be necessary.
  • Wash all clothes, bed linen and towels that have been used within the last two days in hot water (at least 50 °C). Dry them well.
  • If you are unable to wash the items, make sure they are not used and do not touch any skin for 72 hours.
  • The treatment may need to be repeated in a week’s time to kill recently hatched scabies.
  • If itching continues more than 2 to 4 weeks, see your health worker. You may have scabies again or an allergic reaction to the scabies.

What if you don’t get treated?

Scabies itself does not cause any serious long-term health issues. However, because scabies rash is very itchy, it often gets infected and the infection can become serious and require antibiotics and/or hospitalisation. Scratching can also damage the skin and cause other skin conditions or may cause scars.

How do you tell your people you are close to?

Telling people who you have been close to helps them to get the treatment they need and also helps prevent you being reinfected.

Where to get help

  • See your healthprofessional
  • Call healthdirect on 1800 022 222
  • Call the Sexual Health Helpline (9227 6178 for metropolitan callers or 1800 198 205 for country callers)

Where to get help

Public Health

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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