Pubic lice – often called ‘crabs’ – are very common. They are tiny crab-shaped insects the size of a pinhead when fully grown. They usually cause itching, especially at night. You can buy treatment to get rid of pubic lice at a pharmacy without a prescription.
They’re easy to get. They 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 your head.
Symptoms of public lice
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 - this may be intense and usually worse at night
- irritated skin - possibly caused by scratching
- specks of blood on the skin where you have been bitten by lice
- 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 (nits), which look like brown dots.
How they’re passed on
Pubic lice move by crawling from hair to hair - they can't fly or jump. Body contact during sex is the most common way pubic lice are passed on. However, if a person has pubic lice it doesn't always mean it was passed on that way.
Lice can also be passed on through close body contact like hugging and kissing.
Lice can spread on towels, clothes, toilet seats and bedding (although this isn't common). Because they need human blood to survive, they will only leave a body to move from one person to another.
Unfortunately, using condoms and other forms of contraception will not protect you from getting pubic lice.
If you get them, you can stop them from spreading to others by:
- Washing bedding, towels and clothes on a hot wash (above 60°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
You don’t need to go to a clinic or see a doctor - though you may like to consider a full sexual health screen. You do not need a prescription.
You can treat yourself at home with an insecticide cream, lotion or shampoo - such as Lyclear - bought from the chemist.
Follow the treatment instructions on the packet carefully and ask your pharmacist, doctor or nurse if you are unsure what to do.
- 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.
- You can rinse off some treatments after 10-15 minutes, while others are left on longer.
- Usually you need to repeat treatments after 3-7 days.
- Be careful not to get the treatment in your eyes.
- Speak to your doctor or pharmacist if the treatment doesn't work first time.
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.