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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 the hair on the head.

Symptoms of public lice

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It's 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, which 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’re passed on

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Pubic lice are most commonly passed on by body contact during sex.

Lice can also spread on towels, clothes, toilet seats and bedding (although this isn’t common). They can be passed on through close body contact like hugging and kissing.

Unfortunately there's 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 public lice

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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. You can buy this from the chemist without 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, 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?

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