A condition that’s identified by the severe and relentless itch it brings, scabies is a highly contagious skin disease that’s brought on by the microscopic mite Sarcoptes scabiei.
Some people define scabies as an infection, but should be more appropriately known as an infestation. It’s a widespread and common health condition, with 300 million cases being reported every year worldwide.1
Where Does Scabies Come From?
Sarcoptes scabiei is a type of parasitic bug that lives off a human host, burrowing into the outermost top layer of the skin where it feeds, spreads its saliva and lays its eggs. This causes your immune system to react, similar to an allergic reaction, leading to scabies’ characteristic itch and angry rashes.
Sarcoptes scabiei mites thrive in warm spots on your body, and usually live between your fingers, buttocks, under the fingernails, within the skinfolds, or under the navel and waistline. They can also hide under rings, watch straps or bracelets.
These mites can live on the human skin for up to two months, although they can also survive for about 48 to 72 hours without human contact.2 When the mites burrow into your skin and lay eggs, they leave behind pencil mark-like lines called mite tunnels.
What Does Scabies Look Like?
It usually takes four to six weeks before a reaction occurs and rashes appear, as the eggs usually hatch within 21 days.
Scabies rashes appear as blotchy, pimple-like rashes, although they may also appear to have scales and tiny blisters.3 They usually manifest between the fingers and toes, armpits, the undersides of the wrists, on women's breasts (around the nipples), genital areas, and the buttocks.
Is Scabies Contagious?
Yes, scabies is highly contagious. It’s usually transmitted through direct skin-to-skin contact, as scabies mites cannot fly or jump. However, the contact needs to be for a reasonable time. You usually need to be in direct skin contact for 15 to 20 minutes for scabies mites to transfer from one person to another. Therefore, there is a low possibility of catching scabies through short physical contact, such as a handshake or a hug.
However, the more mites there are, the faster they can spread to another person. The average number of mites on an infected person is 12.4 Since scabies mites can live in the environment without attaching to a host, this condition may also be spread through infested bedding, clothing, and furniture.
Anyone can get scabies, as it can strike people of all ages, races, and income levels. Even people who are very clean and neat can fall prey to scabies. Scabies spreads easily in highly populated places, such as nursing homes, prisons, college dormitories, daycare centers and other extended care facilities.5
But is scabies classified as a sexually transmitted disease (STD)? Yes, it can be classified as such, as sexual intercourse (and sharing personal items with an infected person) can cause the mites to transfer to another person.6 However, not all scabies cases are transmitted sexually.
Scabies can be readily treated using home remedies, but extra caution must be exercised even after the infestation has died down in order to completely eradicate mites and prevent a recurrence.