Pubic lice are tiny insects that live in coarse body hair like pubic hair. They’re 1–2mm long.
They’re also called crab lice or crabs because when you look at them through a microscope, they look a bit like crabs.
How do you get pubic lice?
Pubic lice are passed on through close body contact, usually sexual contact. The lice cannot jump or fly but can climb from one person to another.
It’s possible to get them from sharing clothes, bedding or towels with someone who has them, but this is very rare. Lice need to feed on blood to stay alive. Once they come off a body, they will die within 1 or 2 days.
Signs and symptoms of pubic lice
Sometimes you may be able to see pubic lice in your body hair. They most often live on pubic hair around the genitals.
They can also be found in chest, leg, armpit or facial hair, including eyebrows and lashes. They’re different to head lice and will not live in the hair on your head.
The lice eggs (nits) can be very hard to spot. They look like tiny yellowish oval dots attached to hairs. Once they hatch, young lice (nymphs) take 2–3 weeks to mature before they can lay more eggs.
If you don’t see any eggs or lice, you might notice symptoms like:
itching, which is usually worse at night
small red or blue spots on your skin (lice bites)
dark red or brown spots in your underwear (lice poo)
crusted or sticky eyelashes, if they're affected
Lice will not go away without treatment. If you think you have pubic lice you should contact your GP or nearest sexual health clinic.
Is getting pubic lice serious?
Lice are unlikely to cause any long-term problems. But there is a risk of infection when areas of the body are very itchy and irritated. Scratching the itch can break the skin, which can then get infected.
Although not likely to affect your health, pubic lice will not go away without treatment.
Treatment for pubic lice
Medicated creams or shampoos are the main treatment for lice. You may be able to get these from a pharmacy.
If you're not sure if you have lice, you can get checked at your doctor or local sexual health clinic.
At the appointment, a doctor, nurse or clinician will check any affected hair for lice or nits. They may use a comb and magnifying lens to check the hair around your penis or vagina, armpits, chest or eyelashes. They might ask about your sexual partners and suggest you do an STI test.
You’ll need to repeat the treatment a week later to make sure all lice and eggs are gone. You may be asked to go back to your doctor or clinic a week after that to check that the treatment has worked.
How do you avoid public lice?
The only thing you can do to avoid getting pubic lice is to avoid having sexual contact (or sharing bedding or clothing) with anyone you know has them, until they've been treated.
Although condoms are ideal to protect against most STIs, they won’t protect you from public lice as they don’t cover the areas that can get affected.
If you’re being treated for pubic lice, stop them from spreading to others and avoid them coming back by:
washing your clothes and bedding on a hot wash (50C or higher) or seal them in a plastic bag for at least a week, this kills any lice
vacuuming your mattress to remove any lice
not having close body contact with anyone else until your treatment is finished
not sharing clothes, towels or bedding with anyone during your treatment
Telling your partners
If you have public lice, you should tell your partner and anyone you’ve had recent close body contact with. They should also get treated, even if they do not have symptoms.
If you get treatment through a sexual health service, they might be able to help you with telling people. They can help you do this anonymously, usually through a text message, so you can let people know without giving them your name.