Pubic lice/crabs... get them off me!

Originally Published: May 3, 1996 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: March 28, 2008
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Dear Alice,

I have recently discovered that I have what appear to be crabs in my pubic hair. They are itchy and annoying and appear to be laying eggs. How do I get rid of them?

Thanks!

Dear Reader,

One in your predicament might ask, "to scratch or not to scratch?" To which oneself might reply, "who cares?! Just get these things off me!" Fortunately, pubic lice tend to be little more than itchy and annoying. They are not carriers of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or other infections. These critters, known scientifically as phthirus pubis, are tiny, wingless insects that nest in pubic hair and dine on blood. Their crab-like claws, which they use to hold on tight to hair, earned them their popular nickname, "crabs." Most often spread by sexual contact, pubic lice can be transmitted via close body contact, clothes, bedding, and furniture.

Seeing your lice lounging around and laying eggs might gross you out, but at least you know your eye sight is pretty good. Each louse (singular for lice) is just two millimeters at its biggest, and lice eggs (nits) are pale and even smaller. Eggs only take eight days to hatch — one reason why they can spread so quickly. A particularly hairy person might also discover lice around her/his anus, legs, chest, and even facial hair (though crabs tend to prefer the warm dark areas).

Successful treatment includes shampooing infected areas with suds containing the insecticides malathion or carbaryl (available over-the-counter at drug stores), and washing clothes and bedding in water that is at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius... hot water cycle) for 20 minutes. Most products recommend a repeat treatment in 7 days to ensure any eggs that hatched since the first treatment will be destroyed. You may want to consider selecting a product that is labeled for killing both lice and eggs. If you have sexual partners, they should also de-louse. Finally, it's not a bad idea to refrain from sexual activity or sharing clothes, towels, etc. until treatment is complete. The good news, treatment usually works quickly. If this approach does not solve the problem for you and/or your partners, consider making an appointment to see a health care provider. Students at Columbia can schedule an appointment at Primary Care Medical Services by logging on to Open Communicator or by calling x4-2284.

A person might get itchy just thinking about these little buggers; keep in mind that pubic lice are nothing to lose sleep over (at least not once you've sent them packing!) and effective treatment is available from your nearest drug store. Best of luck with treatment,

Alice