What Are Crabs (Pubic Lice)?
"Crabs" is the common term for lice found in the pubic hair of humans. Crabs is a parasite infection medically known as Pediculosis pubis or pubic lice. Barely the size of a pinhead, lice are organisms that live only with the help of another organism, called a host. There are thousands of types of lice, some of which have developed an attraction to humans. The official name for the organism responsible for pubic lice is Pthirus pubis. Other lice that often infect humans are Pediculus humanus capitis (head lice) and Pediculus humanus corporis (body lice). The term "crabs" seems to come from the microscopic appearance of the pubic louse. The pubic lice organisms are visible to the naked eye in affected areas. The lice are typically seen attached to hair in pubic areas, but may sometimes appear in other areas of the body where coarse hair is present (such as beard, chest, armpits, etc.).
The pubic louse is distinct morphologically (somewhat rounded with three pairs of legs on either side of the body from which it takes its descriptive name) from the head and body louse. The female lifespan is slightly shorter (three weeks), and she produces fewer eggs per day (three) than her counterparts. The eggs attach to the base of the pubic hair shaft for approximately six to eight days before hatching.
What Causes Crabs (Pubic Lice)?
- The source of infection for pubic lice is intimate contact with an infected person. Therefore, pubic lice are often transmitted during sex.
- Since transmission occurs during intimate contact, actual sexual intercourse is not necessary for the spread of pubic lice.
- Pubic lice can also be transmitted by contact with contaminated belongings such as towels, bed sheets, or clothing.
- Crabs are transmitted through any intimate contact. Lice do not jump or fly, so actual contact is necessary for transmission. An individual may acquire an infection by sharing bedding or towels.
- Cats, dogs, and other pets are not involved in the spread of human lice. Your pet cannot become infested with human lice and transmit the lice to another person.
What Are the Symptoms of Crabs (Pubic Lice)?
The main symptoms of infection with the pubic lice of crabs are itching and burning of the pubic area.
The itching may spread as the pubic lice move to other moist areas of the body such as the armpit.
For many people who have crabs the itching is worse at night.
Intense or prolonged scratching may lead to skin injuries that may become infected by bacteria.
When to Seek Medical Care
Generally, pubic lice can be cured with an application of certain medications, but in some circumstances it may be necessary to seek a doctor's care.
Go to a doctor immediately if you think you may have an infection.
- One of the main concerns with pubic lice is that people often scratch incessantly, and this scratching can lead to a secondary bacterial infection.
- When scratching is intense for long periods, the skin can be worn and broken.
- If you notice a large area of redness or pus in the area, you may have a skin infection.
- Other signs of a pubic infection include a fever, burning when you urinate, or a genital discharge.
Permethrin (Elimite) is a lice-killing product that is available over-the-counter without a prescription. When using this product it is important to exactly follow the instructions on the package.
- Avoid mucous membranes, which are found at the tip of the penis and the opening of the vagina.
- Repeat anti-lice treatment in seven to 10 days to kill nits that may have hatched.
- Apply for 10 minutes then rinse with warm water.
- Lindane should not be used on children. Lindane can be toxic to the brain and nervous system and should only be used when other treatments have failed.
- Use over-the-counter antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) for itching.
Follow-up for Crab (Pubic Lice) Treatment
To avoid a pubic lice re-infection or to avoid infection of other family members after successful medical treatment, all infested linens and clothes need to be washed in hot water that reaches at least 130 F (54.4 C). If you are unsure of the temperature of your hot water, take your belongings to a commercial laundry. Bed linens, towels, and other potentially contaminated textiles should be thoroughly disinfected. Items that cannot be laundered can be dry-cleaned or stored in a sealed plastic bag for two weeks.
Pubic lice are generally harmless, but people with sexually transmitted infections often have multiple infections, and other sexually transmitted infections that can be more dangerous.
- If the patient has been to the emergency department, they will probably be asked to follow-up with their regular doctor.
- If a patient has treated themselves for crabs, consider a visit to the doctor as part of follow-up care.
Crab (Pubic Lice) Prevention
Crabs are usually spread by direct skin-to-skin intimate contact. Avoid contact with known infected people and textiles or clothing that may have been contaminated by someone who is infected with pubic lice. To avoid spreading the lice, a person with crabs should not have close or intimate contact with anyone else until the infestation has been fully treated. After treatment has been completed, ensure that all clothing and linens have been disinfected to avoid re-infection or spread of the infection to someone else in the home.
Outlook for Crab (Pubic Lice) Infection
If untreated, itching and symptoms will continue. Eventually everyone within close contact with the infected individual will become infected and develop symptoms. If medication, combing, and hygiene are used properly, the infection should clear.
Be wary of re-infection. Continued contact will reintroduce the infection even after the home care measures are taken.
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Medically reveiewed by Avrom Simon, MD; Board Certified Preventative Medicine with Subspecialty in Occupational Medicine
Goldstein, Adam O, MD, MPH, and Beth G Goldstein, MD. "Patient Education: Pubic lice (Beyond the Basics)." UpToDate.com. Updated Jun 2, 2016.