Scabies (sexually transmitted infection)
What is scabies?
Scabies is caused by Sarcoptes scabiei, a mite which lays its eggs under the surface of your skin and reproduces. When the eggs hatch, mites crawl out onto your skin and make new burrows.
The mites can be difficult to identify and may be confused with pubic lice as both conditions cause itching in the genital area.
Is scabies a sexually transmitted infection?
Scabies can be classed as a sexually transmitted infection (STI), because it can be spread through sexual contact.
How do you get scabies?
The incubation period for scabies is usually 4 to 6 weeks for first infections and if you are reinfected you may get symptoms within a few days.
Scabies is spread through:
- direct skin-to-skin contact – non-sexual and sexual
- sexual activity
- contact with towels underclothing or bedding of an infected person.
It is extremely contagious, so if you have scabies your sexual partners will also need treatment.
How do I know if I have scabies?
The scabies mites are tiny and can be difficult to see.
Scabies (meaning ‘to scratch’), is a condition primarily characterised by intense itching which is usually worse at night or after a hot shower or bath.
You may also see silvery lines (burrow markings) under your skin. Sometimes you may get small, red, raised lumps on the surface of your skin.
Skin rashes are generally found in the skin folds including:
- genitals or bottom
- hands, wrists, and between your fingers.
How do I protect myself (and my partner) from getting scabies?
- Have a long-term relationship where neither of you is already infected, and neither of you has other partners.
- Limit your sex partners – the fewer people you have sex with, the less chance of having sex with someone who has genital warts or other STIs.
- Have regular STI check-ups.
- Using condoms and dental dams (external site) will not protect you against scabies.
Talking about STIs
This can be difficult, but the person you have sex with has a right to know if you have an STI.
Discuss it when you are feeling relaxed and confident, not just before you have sex.
Your partner will appreciate your honesty and that you don’t want to infect him/her. You have the right to know if they are infected, too.
What do I do if I have scabies?
- See your doctor for a diagnosis if you think you may have scabies.
- Don’t have sex until the scabies has been treated.
- Advise your sexual partner/s to seek treatment for scabies.
How do I get treated?
- anti-scabies lotions (as directed by doctor or pharmacist)
- washing all bed linen, towels and clothing in hot water at a temperature of at least 50 °C and dry them well
- avoiding skin-to-skin contact with your sexual partner/s until treatment is completed.
The itching from scabies often lasts for up to 4 weeks after successful treatment.
Applying the treatment
Follow this advice to effectively treat scabies:
- Creams and lotions are better absorbed after a shower and towel drying.
- Apply a thin layer of the cream or lotion to your whole body surface, from the chin down. A pastry brush may make it easier to apply.
- If possible, ask someone else to apply it for you. This will make sure your whole body surface is covered.
- Avoid your eyes, nose and mouth.
- Pay particular attention to the areas between your fingers, under your nails, the soles of your feet and between your buttocks.
- Do not wash your hands after treatment.
- Leave treatment on the body for 12 to 24 hours and then wash thoroughly. People often choose to apply the cream in the evening and leave it on overnight.
- Re-apply the cream to any area that has been washed within 12 to 24 hours.
- The treatment may need to be repeated in a week’s time to kill recently hatched mites.
- If the pimples or spots become infected, antibiotics may be necessary.
Where to get help
- You can get scabies from direct skin-to-skin contact from an infected person.
- Scabies is caused by mites infesting the skin – it is highly contagious.
- Treatment involves non-prescribed creams or lotions.
- Your sexual partners will also need treatment.
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.