Pubic lice, or crabs, often serve as comic fodder in the movies when we witness an unsuspecting young man scratching and uncomfortable from an encounter with a “naughty” female. But pubic lice don’t just affect young men, and getting it doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong or even that you’re not practicing good hygiene.
Pubic lice are small, wingless insects most often found in the genital area of humans. When a person is infested with lice (whether it is pubic lice, head lice, or body lice), the condition is known as pediculosis. An infestation with pubic lice is known as pediculosis pubis. This is not the same condition as head lice. Lice found on the hair and head are caused by an infestation with a parasite known as Pediculus humanus capitis.
Transmitting Pubic Lice
Pubic lice are usually spread through sexual contact. For this reason, it is considered a sexually transmitted disease (STD). In rare cases, infestation can be spread through contact with an infested person's bed linens, towels, or clothes. Infection in a young child or teenager may indicate sexual activity or sexual abuse. (Pets, or any animals, do not get or spread pubic lice; it’s not like fleas.)
Life Cycle of Pubic Lice
There are three forms of pubic lice: the egg (also called a nit), the nymph, and the adult. Nits are the eggs of pubic lice. They are very small (about the size of a knot in thread) and are hard to see. They are oval and usually yellow to white in color. Nits take about one week to hatch. Once hatched, they are white or clear in color. The nit hatches into a baby pubic louse called a nymph. It looks like an adult pubic louse but smaller. The adult louse is about the size of a sesame seed, has six legs, and is tan to grayish-white in color. To live, the nymph and adult lice need to feed on blood. If the pubic louse does not get a blood meal, it dies within one to two days.
Signs and Symptoms
The most common symptom of pubic lice is frequent, intense itching. This is because the saliva of the pubic lice causes an allergic reaction. An infestation is diagnosed by looking closely through pubic hair for nits, nymphs, or adults. It may be difficult to find nymphs or adults; there are usually few of them, and they can quickly move away from light. If crawling lice are not seen, finding nits confirms that a person is infested and should be treated. Nits and pubic lice are usually visible to the naked eye, but a hand lens or light may help.
How to Treat It
Pubic lice are treated with medication, which is generally effective, as long as the person follows the directions on the bottle exactly. To kill any lice or nits attached to hairs that may be left behind on clothing or bedding, machine-wash any washable items that the infested person used during the two to three days before treatment. Make sure to use the hot water cycle (130°F). Dry laundry using high heat for at least 20 minutes.
With all STDs, you need to be responsible and inform your partner of your history and refrain from sexual activity until you are certain the condition is clear!