Pubic lice (Phthirus pubis) are tiny parasitic insects that live in coarse human body hair, such as pubic hair.
They spread through close body contact, most commonly sexual contact.
After you get pubic lice, it can take five days to several weeks before symptoms appear. The symptoms include:
Read more about the symptoms of pubic lice.
As well as being found in pubic hair, the lice are also sometimes found in:
Pubic lice are sometimes called crab lice because they look similar to crabs. Adult lice are about 2mm long and are yellow-grey or dusky red in colour. The lice attach their eggs to the base of hairs. The white cases left after the eggs have hatched are called nits.
The lice do not transmit HIV or other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), but a sexual health check-up is always recommended if you have pubic lice.
Pubic lice are not the same as head lice and do not live in the hair on your scalp.
How do you get pubic lice?
Pubic lice are not linked to poor personal hygiene. They are spread through close body contact with someone who has them.
The lice crawl from hair to hair but cannot fly or jump. They need human blood to survive, so generally only leave the body to move from one person to another.
Pubic lice are most commonly passed on during sexual contact. Condoms will not prevent them from being passed to another person.
It is also possible for pubic lice to be spread through sharing clothes, towels and bedding.
When to seek medical advice
If you think you may have pubic lice, go to your GP or your nearest sexual health clinic, also known as a genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic, for a check-up as soon as possible.
Is is usually easy to diagnose pubic lice by examining the affected area. The doctor or nurse may use a magnifying glass to look for signs of the lice, such as the pale-coloured eggs or the lice themselves.
If you have pubic lice as a result of sexual contact, you should be tested for other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Find your local sexual health services.
Treating pubic lice
You can treat pubic lice yourself at home by using a special type of lotion, cream or shampoo. Your doctor or pharmacist can advise you on which treatment to use and how to use it. It's important to follow this advice.
The treatment is applied to all the hairy areas on your body, except for the hair on your head, eyebrows and eyelashes. It usually needs to be repeated after three to seven days.
If the treatment doesn't work, you may need to use another type. This is because pubic lice can sometimes develop resistance to certain treatments. Your doctor or pharmacist can advise you on suitable alternatives.
It's also important to treat anyone you have had close body contact with, including current sexual partners and household members.
Read more about treating pubic lice.
Symptoms of pubic lice
After you come into contact with public lice, it can take five days to several weeks before you notice any symptoms.
The symptoms of pubic lice are the same for both men and women, and include:
Itching is the most common symptom of pubic lice. However, it can take several weeks after the first infestation for you to notice any itching.
The itching is not caused by the lice biting you. It is due to an allergy (hypersensitivity) to the louse saliva.
The itching is usually worse during the night when the lice are more active.
Pubic lice and eggs
Adult pubic lice are very small (about 2mm long) and are difficult to see. The lice are yellow-grey or dusky red in colour and have six legs.
Two of the legs are larger than the others and look like the claws of a crab. The lice use these to grasp onto hairs.
The lice lay their eggs in sacs that are firmly stuck to hairs and are a pale brownish colour. When the eggs hatch, the empty sacs are white.
Although pubic lice and lice eggs are very small and not easy to see, they may be visible in coarse hair anywhere on your body (apart from the hair on your head).
You may also find empty white eggshells (nits) on your hairs, although this does not necessarily mean that you still have an infestation of pubic lice.
Causes of pubic lice
Pubic lice are not related to poor personal hygiene. They are usually caught through close bodily contact with someone who is infected.
The lice crawl from the hair of one person to the hair of another person. They cannot jump, fly or swim.
Pubic lice are most commonly passed on through sexual contact. This includes vaginal, anal and oral sex.
Other types of close bodily contact, such as hugging and kissing, can also spread the lice.
Other ways of spreading public lice
It is also thought that you can get pubic lice from infected items such as:
However, it's much rarer for lice to be spread in this way.
The life cycle of pubic lice
Pubic lice live for one to three months. During this time, the female louse can lay up to 300 eggs. The eggs hatch after 6 to 10 days, and two to three weeks later the lice reach maturity and can start reproducing.
When not on a human body, pubic lice can live for up to 24 hours. However, the lice depend on human blood to survive so they rarely leave the body other than to move to another person. Pubic lice do not live on other animals.
Diagnosing pubic lice
If you think you have pubic lice, get checked as soon as possible.
You can go to:
Sexual health and GUM clinics are often located in hospitals or health centres. You can search for sexual health services in your area.
You can also search for GUM clinics in your area on the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH) website.
In many cases, a healthcare professional will be able to confirm that you have pubic lice by examining the affected area. They may use a magnifying glass to look for:
If you find nits, it does not necessarily mean that you still have an active infestation, although you may still be offered treatment.
Getting tested for STIs
If the pubic lice were transferred through sexual contact, it may be recommended that you are tested for other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as a precaution. It will also be recommended that all your sexual partners over the last three months are seen and treated.
Treating pubic lice
Pubic lice can be treated at home with insecticide cream, lotion or shampoo. It will usually need to be applied once and repeated after three to seven days.
Most treatments need to be applied to the affected area and the whole body, apart from your scalp, face, eyebrows and eyelashes (but including your beard or moustache if you have one). Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist can give you more advice about this.
Everyone you have had close bodily contact with should also be treated at the same time. This includes any sexual partners you have had in the past three months and all members of your household.
Sometimes, pubic lice can be difficult to get rid of because they can develop resistance to insecticide treatments. If this is the case, you may need to try more than one type of treatment. Your doctor or pharmacist can advise you on suitable alternatives.
You can treat yourself at home with an insecticide cream, lotion or shampoo. They are available on prescription from your doctor or you can buy them over the counter from your pharmacy.
Before using the treatment, speak to your doctor or pharmacist about the correct way to use it. Follow their instructions, even if they are different to those on the packaging.
Always ask for advice if the treatment is for:
These people may require a specific type of treatment.
Lotions and cream
The two most commonly used insecticides are:
In most cases, the instructions for using malathion lotion or permethrin cream will be as follows:
Do not use medication more than twice.
Treating an eyelash infestation
If your eyelashes are infested, seek specialist advice and help from your doctor.
You cannot use the same insecticide lotion or cream as you use on your body because it will irritate your eyes. Your doctor will be able to recommend an alternative treatment for you.
An eye ointment with a white or yellow soft paraffin base may be recommended. This works by coating the lice in the greasy ointment and suffocating them. You should:
Insecticides that are used to treat pubic lice may cause skin or eye irritation, such as itchiness, redness, stinging or burning.
If you have these side effects, wash the insecticide off the irritated area. If the insecticide gets into your eyes, rinse them thoroughly using plenty of water.
Some aqueous and alcoholic-based medications may discolour permed, coloured or bleached hair. Check the patient information leaflet for more details.
The first treatment application will probably kill the lice, but the eggs may not have been destroyed. This means that more lice could hatch and the cycle will start again. Reapplying the treatment after seven days ensures that any lice are killed before they are old enough to lay more eggs.
Check for lice a week after your second treatment, or return to your doctor, sexual health clinic, or genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic so that they can check for you.
If you find empty eggshells (nits), it does not necessarily mean that you are still infested. They can remain stuck to the hairs even after treatment. However, if you find lice or eggs that could still hatch, your treatment has not been successful and you should speak to your doctor.
The lice may be resistant to the treatment you have used and your doctor may recommend a different treatment.
Treating other people
To prevent re-infestation, anyone that you are in close contact with should also be treated at the same time as you. This includes your sexual partners and all members of your household, even if they do not have symptoms.
Infestations from sexual contact
Staff at the clinic will recommend that you inform any sexual partners you have had in the past three months so that they can also be examined for pubic lice and treated if necessary.
Some people feel angry, upset or embarrassed about talking to their current or former sexual partners about pubic lice. Do not be afraid to discuss your concerns with clinic staff. They can help you decide the best way to make contact. They can also contact a partner without releasing your details, if you prefer.
Complications of pubic lice
A pubic lice infestation can sometimes lead to minor complications, including skin and eye problems.
If you have pubic lice, your skin may become irritated from scratching.
See your doctor if your eyes become sore.
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'When my GP said I had pubic lice, I was revolted'
Elise Houghton had pubic lice when she was 17.
"I had gone on holiday with some girlfriends for the summer and had been away for about a week when I started getting symptoms. I was really itchy around the pubic area and had a bit of a rash. At first, I didn't think anything of it, but after a few days the itching got worse. I couldn't work out what was wrong, but a friend suggested I go to the doctor.
"It was really embarrassing going to the doctor and when she said it was pubic lice I felt revolted. The thought of them turned my stomach and it made me feel really dirty.
"The doctor told me how they were passed on through sexual contact and I realised I must have got them from someone I'd had a short fling with just before I left to go on holiday. It made me feel a bit sick.
"I was given special cream to kill the lice and their eggs, and I had to do two treatments. It was quite difficult keeping it quiet from my friends, but I didn't really want them to know. I felt so embarrassed about it. I was still itching after treatment, and I was really worried that it hadn't worked, but when I went back to the doctor, she said that was normal and it would calm down, which it did.
"Catching pubic lice made me much more careful about my sexual health. When I got home from holiday, I went to a sexual health clinic and had a full check-up. I was worried that if I had caught pubic lice, I could have caught something else.
"Thankfully, I got the all-clear, but since then I have become much more careful."