Overview

Pubic lice, commonly called crabs, are tiny insects found in your genital area. They are a different type of louse from head lice and body lice. Measuring 1/16 inch (1.6 millimeters) or less, pubic lice received their nickname because their bodies resemble tiny crabs.

The most common way to acquire pubic lice is through sexual intercourse. In children, pubic lice may be found in their eyebrows or eyelashes and can be a sign of sexual abuse. However, it may be possible to catch pubic lice after sharing clothing, bed linens or towels with an infested person.

Pubic lice feed on your blood, and their bites can cause severe itching. Treatment includes applying over-the-counter creams and lotions that kill the parasites and their eggs.

Symptoms

If you have pubic lice (crabs), you may experience intense itching in your genital region. Pubic lice can spread to other areas with coarse body hair, including the:

  • Legs
  • Chest
  • Armpits
  • Beard or mustache
  • Eyelashes or eyebrows, more commonly in children

When to see a doctor

Seek medical advice about pubic lice treatment if:

  • Over-the-counter products don't kill the lice
  • You're pregnant
  • You have any infected skin abrasions from scratching

Causes

Pubic lice are most commonly transmitted during sexual activity. You may also acquire pubic lice from contaminated sheets, blankets, towels or clothes.

Risk factors

People who have other sexually transmitted infections are more likely to also have pubic lice.

Complications

Pubic lice infestations can usually be treated with a louse-killing lotion or gel. However, a pubic lice infestation sometimes leads to complications such as:

  • Discolored skin. Pale blue spots may develop where pubic lice have been feeding continually.
  • Secondary infections. If itchy lice bites cause you to scratch yourself raw, these wounds can become infected.
  • Eye irritations. Children who have pubic lice on their eyelashes may develop a type of pink eye (conjunctivitis).

Prevention

To prevent pubic lice infestation, avoid having sexual contact or sharing bedding or clothing with anyone who has an infestation. If you are being treated for pubic lice, all sexual partners must also be treated.