Health conditions

Pubic lice

What are pubic lice?

Pubic lice (Phthirus pubis) are small parasites found in the pubic hair. They are often called crabs due to their crab-like appearance under a microscope.

Although it is less common, pubic lice can also be found elsewhere on the body including eyebrows, beards and armpits.

The condition can affect adults, young adults and children.

Pubic lice are different to head lice.

How do you get pubic lice?

Pubic lice are usually spread by direct skin-to-skin contact (through sexual activity) and through contact with an infected person’s towels, bed linen and underwear. 

While condoms are essential for safe sex they will not protect you from getting pubic lice.

If you get pubic lice, it’s a good idea for you and your most recent sexual partners to be tested for other sexually transmissible infections (STIs).

Signs and symptoms

Some people have mild or no symptoms and may be unaware they have pubic lice.

Symptoms of pubic lice are:

  • itching in your pubic area
  • visible lice or eggs clinging to body hair
  • a fine gritty debris from the lice is sometimes seen on the underwear.

How do I know I have pubic lice?

Pubic lice are diagnosed by careful inspection of the affected area.

Your doctor can check for pubic lice and any other sexually transmitted infection (STI), provide a diagnosis and treatment.

Treatment of pubic lice

Your doctor or pharmacist will prescribe topical insecticide lotions or shampoos. You will not need to shave your pubic hair.

The treatment should be reapplied again in a week to kill any newly hatched lice.

Your bed linen, towels and clothing must be thoroughly machine-washed and sterilised with detergent and hot water to ensure infestation does not spread.

Don’t have sex until the pubic lice have been treated.

How can pubic lice be prevented?

You can reduce the risks of getting pubic lice and other STIs by following this advice:

  • Have a long-term relationship where neither of you is already infected, nor has sex with other partners.
  • Limit your sex partners. The fewer people you have sex with, the less chance of having sex with someone who has pubic lice.
  • Have regular STI check-ups.

Talking about STIs can be difficult, but the person you have sex with has a right to know if you have an STI. Discuss it when you are feeling relaxed and confident, not just before you have sex.

Your partner will appreciate your honesty and that you don’t want to infect him/her. You have the right to know if they’re infected, too.

Where to get help

Remember

  • You can reduce the risks of getting pubic lice by practising safe sex, and limiting your sex partners.
  • Don’t have sex until the pubic lice are treated.
  • Condoms and dental dams do not protect you against pubic lice.

Acknowledgements
Public Health

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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