Pubic lice (crabs)

What is it?

Pubic lice are small parasitic insects that live in coarse body hair, such as pubic hair. They are yellow-grey and about 2mm long, and are often known as "crabs". The eggs are called nits and appear as brownish dots fixed to coarse body hair.

They can be found in pubic hair, underarm and leg hair, hair on the abdomen and chest, in beards and rarely in eyebrows and eyelashes. They do not live in the hair on the head.

Pubic lice are different from the head lice which some people get on their scalp.

How do I catch it?

Pubic lice can be passed from one person to another by close body contact or sexual contact with someone who has pubic lice.

It may be possible for pubic lice to be spread by sharing clothing, bedding and towels.

Symptoms

You might notice:

  • itching in the affected areas
  • black powdery droppings from the lice in your underwear
  • brown eggs on pubic hair or other body hair
  • irritation and inflammation in the affected areas, sometimes caused by scratching
  • sky-blue spots (which disappear within a few days) or very tiny specks of blood on the skin

It can take several weeks after coming into contact with pubic lice before signs and symptoms appear.

Testing

Diagnosis of pubic lice is made by careful examination.

Treatment

Treatment for pubic lice is simple and involves using a special cream, lotion or shampoo.

To be effective, treatment needs to be repeated after three to seven days.

You do not need to shave off pubic or other body hair.

You should wash your clothing, bedding and towels in a washing machine on a very hot cycle (50°C or higher) to kill the lice and avoid re-infection.

Even after successful treatment, itching may continue for a few days. There may be nits in your body hair after treatment but these can be removed with a special comb that you can get over the counter from a pharmacy.

Your sexual partner should be treated at the same time even if they don't have any signs and symptoms.

All Umbrella clinics provide treatment for sexually transmitted infections. To find clinics, and to see which services they offer, please see the service locator.

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Worried about pubic lice?

How to avoid STIs

See the FPA website for a range of downloadable leaflets on contraception and sexually transmitted infections.

View FPA leaflets

The British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH) website also features a range of downloadable leaflets on STIs.

View BASHH leaflets