Pubic lice are small parasitic insects called Phthirus pubis which can live in pubic hair, as well as the hair of the eyebrows and eyelashes. They are also known as crabs, due to their similar shape and appearance. They live in coarse hair – and can’t be found on the hair of the head.
How do you get pubic lice?
Pubic lice are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, usually during sex. Condoms don’t stop pubic lice from being transferred. They can also be transmitted by sharing towels, sheets and clothes. They can’t fly or jump from person to person. Pubic lice can’t live off the body for very long. Around 1 to 2 of every 100 Australians are estimated to have public lice.
Pubic lice can cause itching of the pubic and genital area. They feed on your blood by biting you. Your body’s reaction to the bites causes the itch. The itch can be quite intense and may be worse at night.
You may have dark marks on your skin as a result of the bites.
Some people may not have any symptoms and be unaware they have pubic lice.
You may be able to see the lice attached to your pubic hair – or the eggs of the lice (known as nits). The eggs are much smaller than the lice and are light-coloured. A magnifying glass may make it easier to see the lice and eggs. The lice are about 1.5 mm long and have 6 legs.
If you can’t identify pubic lice yourself, your doctor will be able to help you. They may use a light and a magnifying glass to see the insects and their eggs.
Treatment for public lice
Your doctor, pharmacist or sexual health centre should be able to help you treat pubic lice.
There are over-the-counter treatments available from the pharmacy for public lice. These contain permethrin – you apply the rinse and wash off once per week. Lyclear is one such product. It is applied to cool dry skin, left for 8 to 24 hours and then thoroughly washed off.
Antihistamines may help reduce the itching. You can get these from the pharmacy or in small quantities from a supermarket.
When to see the doctor
If any of the bites seem to have become infected, or you are pregnant and have public lice, you should see your doctor.
If you have pubic lice, you may also have caught another sexually transmissible infection and should consider being tested for STIs.
Are pubic lice dangerous?
The good news is that public lice don’t transmit any infectious diseases. But you should tell your recent sexual contacts if you are infected.
Last Reviewed: 02/09/2019
1. Australian STI Management Guidelines for Use in Primary Care. Ectoparasites. Updated July 2018. http://www.sti.guidelines.org.au/sexually-transmissible-infections/ectoparasites
2. Webb C. Despite ‘barely there’ trends, pubic lice are here to stay. The Conversation. Feb 2016. https://theconversation.com/despite-barely-there-trends-pubic-lice-are-here-to-stay-52958
3. Melbourne Sexual Health Centre. Treatment Guidelines. Pubic lice. (updated March 2019). https://www.mshc.org.au/HealthProfessional/MSHCTreatmentGuidelines/Pubiclice#.XWyYY5MzZhE
Head lice (nits)
Head lice (or nits), which live and breed in hair or on the scalp, can be treated by wet combing with a conditioner or with various shampoos and lotions.
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Video: How to treat head lice
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