About Public Lice
Pubic lice (often called "crabs" because of their
crab-like appearance under a microscope) are six-legged creatures
that most commonly infest hair in the pubic area, although they
also can infest other body hair. In most cases, pubic lice are
from the pubic hair of one person to another. But lice can be
contracted in other ways, too - from infested clothing, towels, and
Typically, pubic lice can be treated at home. But if someone in
the house has them, it's important to take precautions so that
they don't spread.
Although it's possible to be infested and have no symptoms,
people with pubic lice usually experience itchiness. This can
worsen at night when the lice become active and bury their heads
inside pubic hair follicles to feed on a person's blood.
Sometimes, lice bites can also cause the infested area to become
inflamed because of a reaction to the proteins in the saliva of the
lice. Constant itching and scratching can cause the area to become
raw and lead to a secondary bacterial infection. Scratching also
can help the pubic lice to spread.
If the infestation consists of many adult lice, symptoms may be
noticeable immediately. But if the infestation initially involves a
few lice that then lay eggs, a person may not experience any
symptoms for 2 to 4 weeks until the eggs hatch.
In young children, pubic lice may also be a cause of blepharitis
(irritation or infection of the eyelids). So, a child's
eyelashes should be examined with a high-powered magnifying glass
if lice are suspected.
Pubic lice can live 1 to 2 days away from a human body. But
contrary to what some people may think, they're rarely
transmitted from furniture or toilet seats because the lice that
fall from the body are usually injured or dying. Unlike fleas, lice
can't jump from person to person. And they can't be
contracted from animals.
Because the lice can sometimes be contracted from bedding and
towels used by someone who is infested, it's important to avoid
contact with any item - including clothing - that the person has
More commonly, pubic lice infestation is spread through sexual
contact, so the best way to prevent it is to abstain from having
sex. Sexual contact with more than one partner or with someone who
has more than one partner increases the risk of contracting any
When properly and consistently used,
decrease the risk of STDs. Latex condoms provide greater protection
than natural-membrane condoms. The female condom, made of
polyurethane, is also considered effective against STDs. However,
because condoms don't cover the area with pubic hair, they are
not good protection against pubic lice.
A teen who is being treated for pubic lice also should be tested
for other STDs, and should have time alone with the doctor to
openly discuss issues like sexual activity. Not all teens will be
comfortable talking with parents about these issues. But it's
important to encourage them to talk to a trusted adult who can
provide the facts.
If your teen is thinking of becoming sexually active or already
has started having sex, it's important to talk with him or her
about it. Make sure your teen knows how STDs can be spread (during
anal, oral, or vaginal sex) and that these infections often
don't have symptoms, so a partner might have an STD without
It can be difficult to talk about STDs, but just as with any
other medical issue, teens need this information to stay safe and
healthy. Provide the facts, and let your child know where you
It's also important that all teens have regular full
physical exams - which can include screening for STDs. Your teen
may want to see a gynecologist or a specialist in adolescent
medicine to talk about sexual health issues. Community health
organizations and sexual counseling centers in your local area also
may be able to offer some guidance.
Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: August 2007
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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