Pubic lice are one of several species of lice, of the order Anoplura, which are tiny parasitic insects that infest mammals. Pubic lice are called Phthirus pubis. It lives in pubic hair, underarm hair, hairy areas on the body and, occasionally, in eyebrows and eyelashes. They are yellow-grey and about 2mm long. They have a crab-like appearance, so are often known as ‘crabs’ or crab lice.
The eggs are called ‘nits’ and appear as brownish dots fixed to coarse body hair. Pubic lice are different from head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis), which are also nicknamed ‘nits’.
How are they spread?
They are easily passed from one person to another through close body contact or sexual contact. Pubic lice can be spread by sharing clothing, bedding, or towels. Both men and women can get them and pass them on.
How they feed
Pubic lice depend on human blood for survival. They do this by sucking the skin underneath the hair they cling to. They move by crawling from hair to hair because they cannot jump or fly. You may see them move, but they keep still under light.
Some people have no symptoms, or may not notice the lice or eggs therefore; you may not know whether you or your partner has pubic lice. Symptoms may not appear until several weeks after coming into contact with pubic lice.
Look out for :
- Itching in the affected areas may lead to irritation and inflammation due to scratching
- Black powdery droppings from the lice in underwear
- Brown eggs on pubic or other body hair
- Very tiny specks of blood on the skin
What is the treatment?
Treatment is straightforward and involves using a special cream, lotion, or shampoo, which can all be bought from a chemist. Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist will advise you accordingly. Lotions tend to be more effective than shampoos, and sometimes the treatment has to be repeated after three to seven days. All bedding, clothing and towels need to be washed hot. Pubic lice will not go away without treatment and everyone in your household should be treated at the same time, as well as any sexual partners.
Who can help me?
Get checked if you think you’ve been in contact with pubic lice. In most cases, you can tell if you have them by looking closely. Go to your doctor, a genitourinary medicine clinic, sexual health clinic, or talk to a pharmacist. Tell the doctor, nurse or pharmacist if you might be pregnant, are pregnant or are breastfeeding, as this will affect the type of treatment you’re given.
- Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary 28th Edition W.B. Saunders Company, Philadelphia, USA
- How to treat nits. www.nhs.uk. Date published Wednesday September 5 2007
- Pubic lice sexual health; STI’s www.bbc.co.uk/relationships August 2007