In this guide, we’ll look at the telltale signs of scabies to help you determine whether you’re suffering from this contagious skin condition or whether your symptoms might indicate something else. We’ll also explore some of the most common skin rashes so you can recognise the signs.
What is scabies?
Scabies is a contagious skin condition caused by tiny burrowing mites called Sarcoptes scabiei. It can cause intense itching, particularly during the night when the skin is warm. Scabies can spread quickly from person to person through prolonged direct physical contact. It’s most often contracted through having sex, holding hands, or sharing clothes, towels or bedding with an infected individual.
How to tell if you have scabies
Following infection, it may take up to eight weeks for someone suffering from scabies to present with any symptoms. After this period, a sufferer will begin to experience severe itching accompanied by a red rash. The itching will normally be worse during the night.
The scabies rash can affect any part of the body except the head. The most common areas for a scabies rash to appear are:
- The inside of the elbow
- Around the waist
- The knees, lower legs and ankles
- The shoulder blades
- The lower buttocks
- The groin
- The female genital area
You may also notice burrow marks, which are small in size and resemble wavy silvery lines with tiny black dots at one end. For adults infected with scabies, it’s common for burrow marks to appear in any of the following places:
- Between the fingers and toes
- The elbows and wrists
- The sides and soles of the feet
- In between and around skin folds
- For men: around the genitals
- For women: around the nipple area
Infants, young children and the elderly may experience burrow marks in places not usually associated with an infection in an adult, such as the face, neck and scalp, as well as the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet.
How to tell scabies from other rashes
You can usually self-diagnose scabies by visually inspecting the skin. A scabies rash will resemble a series of tiny red dots, and will typically be accompanied by burrow marks. The itching caused by scabies is often much worse at night, so if this is the case then it’s likely you’re suffering from scabies and not another rash-causing condition.
If you’re unsure, a GP or dermatologist will be able to confirm whether you have scabies or a similar condition — and recommend an effective treatment either way.
Treatment for scabies
If you’ve been diagnosed with scabies, your partner and anyone else in your household should also be treated for the condition (even if they’re not presenting symptoms) as the infection may have been transmitted to them through close bodily contact or through sharing towels or bed linen.
Scabies is usually treated by applying a cream to the entire body. Effective cream-based treatments for scabies include:
- Lyclear Dermal Cream, is an effective topical treatment used to clear scabies mites and their eggs from the skin. Lyclear provides relief from itching within a few hours, and in most cases, it will clear the infection with a single thorough application.
- Permethrin Cream, is a generic alternative which contains the same active ingredient (permethrin) as Lyclear. Like Lyclear, a single application of Permethrin should completely clear the mites from your skin.
To avoid catching scabies in the first place, avoid direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. You should also avoid contact with any contaminated items, such as clothing, towels, bedding or furniture. Where possible, any items worn or used by someone infected with scabies should be washed and dried on a hot cycle.
Other types of skin rash
There are many different types of skin rashes, with a number of different causes. Many of these can present somewhat similar symptoms to scabies, therefore it may initially be unclear which condition you’re suffering from. To help you differentiate scabies from other rashes, let’s explore some of the more common rash-causing skin conditions.
Eczema is a long-term condition that causes the skin to become dry and itchy. It may also become scaly and red, resembling a rash, while in more severe cases sufferers may experience crusting, weeping or bleeding. Eczema affects around one in five children but is less common in adulthood.
Symptoms of eczema
- Dry, cracked skin
- A rash
- Oozing or crusting
- Thickened skin
How does eczema differ from scabies?
A scabies rash can affect any area of the body excluding the head, while eczema typically occurs on the face, hands, feet, the insides of the elbows or behind the knees. Eczema is usually caused by environmental or genetic factors and is not contagious, whereas scabies is highly contagious and easily passed on through human contact.
Like eczema, psoriasis is a long-term skin condition. Psoriasis flare-ups cause the skin to become dry, red and itchy, often with scaly, flaky patches. It’s not contagious but is triggered by your body's inflammatory response, causing the overproduction of skin cells.
Symptoms of psoriasis
- Dry, cracked skin
- Soreness and pain
- A patchy rash that varies in colour
- Small scaling spots (commonly seen in children)
- Nails that are pitted, cracked or crumbling
How does psoriasis differ from scabies?
In psoriasis, the skin on the scalp, elbows, knees and the lower back is most often affected by patchy rashes and flaky, itchy skin. Scabies can affect any area of the body other than the head, and a scabies rash will resemble small red dots accompanied by silvery burrow marks. Unlike scabies, psoriasis is a chronic skin condition which is not contagious.
Contrary to its name, ringworm doesn’t involve any worms but is in fact a contagious fungal skin infection — so-called due to its ringed, worm-like appearance. The condition is not serious and is usually treated easily using an anti-fungal cream, though, like scabies, it is infectious and can be passed on through close physical contact or contaminated objects.
Symptoms of ringworm
- A red ring-shaped rash
- A clear or scaly area inside the ring
- Slightly raised expanding rings
- A round flat patch of itchy skin
- Overlapping rings
How does ringworm differ from scabies?
Both ringworm and scabies are contagious and usually transmitted through close contact, but that’s largely where the similarities end. Ringworm is a fungal infection — whereas scabies is caused by mites — and it is easily identified by the appearance of a characteristic red, ring-shaped rash, most commonly affecting the feet, groin and scalp.
Shingles is a viral condition that causes a severe and painful rash. Caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, the rash can occur anywhere on the body, but it typically appears as a single strip of blisters on one side of the body only. Usually, a sufferer will experience a painful tingling feeling on the skin before developing a rash a few days later.
Symptoms of shingles
- Painful, burning or tingling skin
- A red rash that begins a few days after the pain
- Fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over
- Sensitivity to light
How does shingles differ from scabies?
A scabies rash can affect almost any area of the body, whereas shingles typically only occur on one side — most often the left or right side of the torso. Furthermore, shingles are usually preceded by painful, burning or tingling skin, and is occasionally accompanied by a fever, headaches and increased fatigue.
If you think you have scabies, any of the conditions described above, or any other skin complaint which resembles a rash, you should seek advice from a GP or pharmacist. If it’s been confirmed you have scabies, be assured that it’s rarely serious, but make sure you and anyone else you live with are treated as soon as possible, and avoid sharing clothes, towels or bed linen.