Pubic lice 

Introduction 

Pubic lice are about 2mm long and live in coarse human body hair  

Sexual health advice

You can call the Sexual Healthline on 0800 567 123 for confidential advice and support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

You can also call sexual health direct on 0845 122 8690 (England only) from 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday. This helpline is run by the FPA (Family Planning Association).

They can give you confidential information and advice about STIs, contraception, pregnancy, plus other sexual health matters.

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:

  • itching in the affected areas
  • inflammation or irritation in the affected areas caused by scratching
  • black powder in your underwear
  • blue-coloured spots on your skin where the lice are living, such as on your thighs or lower abdomen (these are caused by lice bites)
  • tiny blood spots on your underwear or skin

Read more about the symptoms of pubic lice.

As well as being found in pubic hair, the lice are also sometimes found in:

  • underarm and leg hair
  • hair on the chest, abdomen and back
  • facial hair, such as beards and moustaches
  • eyelashes and eyebrows (very occasionally)

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.

Page last reviewed: 27/01/2012

Next review due: 27/01/2014

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