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Pubic lice

pubic lice

Pubic lice – often called ‘crabs’ – are very common. They are small crab-shaped insects the size of a pinhead when fully grown. They usually cause itching, especially at night. You can buy treatment for pubic lice at a pharmacy without a prescription.

They’re easy to get and live on body hair and feed on blood (but they cannot pass on HIV).

They live on pubic hair, underarm hair, hairy legs and chests and sometimes in eyebrows or facial hair - but not in hair on the head.

Symptoms of pubic lice:

It is possible to have pubic lice without noticing, but you will usually have the following symptoms several weeks after getting pubic lice:

  • itching in the areas affected - this may be intense
  • irritated skin - possibly caused by scratching
  • specks of blood on the skin where the lice have bitten you
  • blue specks on the skin
  • black powder in your underwear, caused by lice droppings.

You might also be able to see the lice and their eggs.

How they are passed on

Pubic lice are most commonly passed on by body contact during sex. However if someone becomes infected it doesn’t always mean they’ve had sex with someone else. Lice can spread on towels, clothes, toilet seats and bedding (although this isn’t common). They can also be passed on through close body contact like hugging and kissing.

Unfortunately there is no way of stopping yourself getting pubic lice - condoms and other forms of contraception will not stop them spreading.

If you get them, you can stop them from spreading to others by:

  • Washing bedding, towels and clothes on a hot wash - above 50° C - which will kill the lice and their eggs.
  • Making sure anyone who you have had close contact with is treated. This includes sexual partners from the last three months and everyone in your household.

Treatment for crabs:

You don’t need to go to a clinic or see a doctor (although you may like to consider a full sexual health screen). You can treat yourself at home with an insecticide cream, lotion or shampoo - such as Lyclear - bought from the chemist. You do not need a prescription.

In most cases the treatment is applied to the affected area as well as other hairy areas of the body. Some treatments have to be applied to the whole body and some have to be repeated -read the instructions carefully or ask your pharmacist or a doctor or nurse if you are unsure.

If you have pubic lice in your eyelashes, you need to see a doctor to get the correct treatment.

Shaving off pubic hair will not get rid of the lice.

Can I still have sex?

Avoid sex or close contact until you and your partner have completed your treatment.

Next: Shigella ››

‹‹ Back to: NSU (Nonspecific Urethritis)



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The Information Standard: Certified member

This article was last reviewed on 13/7/2015 by Anna Peters

Date due for the next review: 13/7/2018

Content Author: Richard Scholey

Current Owner: Health Promotion

More information:

Pubic lice and scabies, FPA, January 2014

Pubic lice - Introduction, NHS Choices, April 2014

Pubic lice - Symptoms, NHS Choices, April 2014

Pubic lice - Causes, NHS Choices, April 2014

Pubic lice - Diagnosing pubic lice, NHS Choices, April 2014

Pubic lice - Treating pubic lice, NHS Choices, April 2014

Crabs overview, Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, Emedicine health, May 2014

Hunter, H. Color Atlas and Synopsis of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (second edition)  McGraw-Hill, Handsfield, (2001)

McMillan A, Scott GR. Sexually Transmitted Infections (second edition), Churchill, Livingstone, (2000)

British Association of Sexual Health and HIV, Clinical Effectiveness Group, United Kingdom National Guidelines on the Management of Scabies infestation (2007)

Edited by Stephen Morse et al, Atlas of Sexually Transmitted Diseases and AIDS, third Edition, Mosby (2003)


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