Pubic lice (crabs)

Pubic lice are tiny parasitic insects that live in coarse body hair, such as pubic hair. Pubic lice can be passed from one person to another by close body contact or sexual contact with someone who has pubic lice. Treatment involves using a special cream, lotion or shampoo.

What is it?

Pubic lice (commonly known as “crabs”) are small parasitic insects that live in coarse body hair such as pubic hair. They are about 2mm long and yellow-grey in colour. The eggs appear as brownish dots that are fixed to the body hair and are called nits.

As well as pubic hair, they can also be found in leg or underarm hair, hair on the chest or abdomen, beards and less commonly in eyebrows or eyelashes. They do not live in head hair- pubic lice are different from the head lice that some people get on their scalp.

How do I catch it?

Close body contact or sexual contact with someone who has pubic lice is the main route for spreading the lice from person to person.

It can also be possible to pass on pubic lice by sharing towels, bedding and clothing.

What symptoms could I have?

Symptoms that you should look out for include:

  • Irritation and inflammation in the affected areas. This is sometimes caused by scratching.
  • Brown eggs on coarse body hair such as pubic hair and black powdery droppings in your underwear.
  • Itching in the affected areas.
  • Sky-blue spots (which clear up 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 the signs and symptoms appear.

How do I look for it?

If you're itching or have been in contact with pubic lice then it's worth carefully examining your genital skin. You may notice tiny dark eggs or pubic lice clinging onto your pubic hair. The diagnosis can be made in the sexual health clinic if need be.

You can use the service finder to find a service near you.

How do you treat it?

Treating public lice is simple and involves using a special lotion, cream or shampoo. These can be purchased over the counter at most pharmacists.

You should also wash your towels and bedding in a washing machine on a very hot cycle (50oC or higher). This will kill any remaining lice, preventing re-infection.

The itching might continue for a few days, even if you have been successfully treated. Any eggs in your body hair that remain after treatment can be removed by a special comb that you can get over the counter from the pharmacy.

Make sure that your sexual partner is treated for pubic lice at the same time, even if they don’t show any symptoms. This is because they could be infected but are in the few weeks before the symptoms start to show.