Written on November 24, 2023 by Amy Harris, MS, RN, CNM. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
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Crabs is another name for pubic lice. Somewhere between two and 10 percent of the world’s population has public lice. Are you itching or feeling your skin crawl yet? Lice are never a pleasant conversation topic, no matter where on your body they call home. Keep reading Everlywell’s guide to this easily-treated, common infection.
People nicknamed public lice crabs because their bodies are shaped like a crab’s body. Crabs are tiny (pin-head sized or 1/16 of an inch or less) parasites that attach to the hairs around your genitals. They are part of a happy family of three different types of lice that infect humans:
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), pubic lice have three forms: the egg (also called a nit), the nymph, and the adult. Pubic lice nymphs take about 2–3 weeks after hatching to mature enough to reproduce as adults. Crabs feed on your blood to survive. They will die without their human home (and food). If they fall off of you, they usually die within 1-2 days. Nymphs and crabs need to feed up to five times a day.
Itching is the primary symptom people with crabs report. When crabs bite your skin, their saliva causes intense itching. Other signs you might have crabs are :
Sometimes, it can be hard to see crabs — typically, only a few crabs hang out together at a time. Using a magnifying glass to look may help you sleuth out whether or not you have crabs.
Not necessarily. Several other STDs cause itching, such as :
Also, remember that getting pubic lice doesn’t mean you’re dirty — your infection has nothing to do with your hygiene or cleanliness, just your sexual activity.
There is no test for crabs. If you see crabs, nits, or nymphs on your skin, you could see a healthcare provider for confirmation that you have crabs. They could then prescribe you (and any sexual partners) a treatment for crabs.
If you have itching and have seen crabs on your body, you can try an over-the-counter cream or lotion treatment. Nix™ lice treatment products are one example. These treatments kill the parasites and their eggs. Treatments include a lotion that contains permethrin or a mousse containing pyrethrins and piperonyl butoxide. One treatment (assuming you follow the package instructions) usually will cure your crab problem. Some people may require a second treatment 9-10 days later. Here is how to use an over-the-counter crab treatment:
If you find nits at the base of the hair, you can just remove them using your fingernails or a fine-toothed comb. Make sure your crabs are gone for good by:
You should see a healthcare provider if you have any questions about whether or not you have crabs or another STD if over-the-counter products don't kill the lice after the first treatment, if you're pregnant, or if you have any infected skin areas from scratching.
To prevent the spread of crabs to family members or other partners, avoid having sexual contact or sharing bedding or clothing with anyone until you are fully treated. If you are treated for pubic lice, all of your sexual partners also need treatment — otherwise, you will just keep reinfecting one another.
A sexually transmitted disease (STD) is a condition caused by an infection with a virus, bacteria, or parasite that spreads from one person to another through some kind of sexual activity.
Crabs spread by crawling — they can’t fly or jump. You can’t get crabs from animals. They spread most commonly through sexual activity, so yes, they are an STD. But you can still get crabs without having sex. Any close genital-to-genital contact could help crabs hitch a ride on a new human host — passing on crabs to your partner does not require having penetrative oral or anal sex like some other STIs.
It may be possible to catch pubic lice after sharing clothing, bedsheets, or towels with an infected person as well. It is hard for pubic lice to survive on smooth surfaces, like toilet seats, because they usually slip off. Pubic lice can spread to other parts of your body with coarse body hair, including your [1-2]:
Cases of crabs in the eyelashes and eyebrows may be a red flag for potential child sexual abuse.
Research shows that many of the same people who have crabs may have other sexually transmitted infections.[2,6] If you or one of your partners is dealing with crabs, it might be a great time to test for other STDs as well. Everlywell offers convenient and confidential at-home STI testing for 6 common STDs: Gonorrhea, chlamydia, HPV, Hepatitis C, Syphilis, and Trichomoniasis.
Worrying that you might have an STD is no walk in the park. Not sure what your symptoms mean or which test is right for you? Everlywell offers access to online STD consults with highly-trained clinicians within two hours. Clinicians are available in select states Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-6 p.m. CST. Your sexual health is an essential part of your overall health and well-being.