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Sexually Transmitted Diseases
|What Are Pubic Lice?
Pubic lice (singular, louse), also known as phthirus pubis, are small parasites that infect the pubic hair area and lay eggs. An infection of lice is also known as crabs because the parasites are flat and crab-like shaped. Less than 1 mm long, a louse has 3 pairs of claws and 4 pairs of legs. It moves by swinging from hair to hair and then bites the skin to enter where it feeds on tiny blood vessels. Female lice lay about 3 white eggs daily called nits. The eggs take 7 to 9 days to hatch. Crab lice are a slightly different species to head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis) and body lice (Pediculus humanus corporis). Lice infections are more commonly found in teenagers and are spread through sexual activity. Although lice are not a serious health threat they can cause agonizing itching and require a good deal of time and effort to eradicate. An estimated 3 million Americans a year are infected with crabs.
Pubic lice are usually passed from person to person through sexual contact. Once separated from the skin, lice can only survive 24 hours but they can occasionally be transferred from infected toilet seats, blankets, bed linen or bathing suits in a store. Animals cannot spread lice to humans.
It is possible to have lice without symptoms, but this is rare. Most people will experience:
The only way to diagnose lice is to actually find them or their eggs (nits). Your doctor or STD clinic will be able to check for lice by physically examining the area using a magnifying glass. If you are diagnosed with lice you should also undergo STD testing in case you picked up any other nasty conditions.
Treatment is available over the counter in the form of creams, shampoos and lotions. The most effective non-prescription treatment is Nix (permethrin) available as a cream rinse. It kills both lice and nits and usually only requires one treatment. Other options include RID and Kwell (prescription) but they may require repeat treatments a week later if some lice remain. All are strong medications and can produce side effects like a skin rash, so follow the instructions carefully. If you are pregnant, consult your doctor first. All personal items (and those of your partner), clothing, towels, sheets and bed linen should be washed at a high temperature and machine dried, or dry-cleaned. Non-washable items can be sprayed with a medicated spray (such as RID Home Lice Control Spray) or sealed (suffocated) in a plastic bag for 2 weeks. That is long enough for nits to hatch and die.
Treatment and thorough cleaning should rid you of lice. However, call your doctor if you try over the counter treatments and they are not effective.
Preventing lice is the same as preventing all STDs (see STD prevention). Additionally, good personal hygiene is also recommended. Generally it is better to avoid using other people's towels where possible. Covering public toilet seats with tissue may help prevent their spread. If you try a swimming costume on in a shop, always keep your underwear on.
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For more advice, see the following:
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WOMENS HEALTH ADVICE: ABOUT SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED DISEASES