Also called crabs, pubic lice are tiny insects, around 2mm long, which live in pubic hair (and sometimes facial and chest hair). They are light coloured but get darker when they're full of blood. Their brown eggs (called nits but not the same as nits on your head) are hard to see but usually come in clumps.
They can't run or jump but they can crawl from one person to another via pubic hair (or any coarse hair, including eyelashes) so close physical contact (including hugging and kissing) will enable them to be passed on. Condoms and other barrier methods of contraception won't protect against pubic lice. They can also live for around 24 hours on clothes, bedding and towels.
Intense itching in the pubic area (or any other areas of hair where crabs have settled) and irritated, bloody skin. You may see black powder in your underwear, which are lice droppings.
You may be able to see them move, although they are small and they keep still in the light. If you're not sure, your local GP or GUM clinic can check by using a microscope.
Insecticide cream, lotion or shampoo, which can be prescribed or bought over-the-counter. Some lice can develop a resistance so if you may need to try more than one type. Your GP or pharmacist can advise. If you are under 18, pregnant or breastfeeding, seek advice as you may need a specific treatment. To prevent re-infestation, partners need to be treated, even if they have no symptoms. Clothes, bedding and towels should be washed in a hot cycle (at least 50 degrees).
Left untreated, constant scratching can result in skin to flake off and increase the risk of boils and infections such as impetigo. Lice left in eyelashes can lead to inflammation and conditions including conjunctivitis and blepharitis.
Around 2% of people worldwide are thought to have pubic lice. Numbers in the UK are falling with GUM clinics reporting fewer than 2,000 cases a year. However, this doesn't include people who visit their GP for treatment or buy over-the-counter remedies.
You can reduce the risk of becoming infected with pubic lice and spreading the infection. How? Here are five simple ways to prevent you getting pubic lice.
Use a condom - Protecting yourself during all sexual activity (vaginal, anal and oral) can reduce the risk of getting infected with pubic lice. Use a male latex condom or a female polyurethane condom during sexual contact.
Be aware - Make sure that you get checked regularly for STIs, especially if you're under the age of 25 as this is the group most at risk. In a few seconds you can order your chlamydia self-collecting test online.
Limit your number of sex partners - Changing sex partners puts you at a high risk of becoming infected with pubic lice or any other sexually transmitted infections. If you do change partners, get tested every single time, even if the person you're with assures you they don't have it. It's largely symptomless so they might not even know they're infected.
Talk to your partner - A simple conversation before beginning a sexual relationship can help. Take your time and find out whether he or she is at risk of having pubic lice. Talk to your partner about the risk factors, the benefits of regular screening, signs to look out for and the need to use condoms, even when you're not having penetrative sex. Sexually transmitted infections are more common when ignorance is higher so it pays to have some knowledge and share it with others.
Get tested regularly - If you are in stable relationship it is recommended to do a test at least once a year. If you have multiple sexual partners you should do it every three months. Here at raTrust we can offer you various types of STI tests. You will be able to do self-collection test at home at a time and in an environment which is convenient for you.
Last updated September 10, 2018