Crabs: What Are They?

In school growing up there were numerous crab jokes made by my classmates.  If we wanted to give the ultimate insult we would say, “S/he’s got crabs.”  Of course, we didn’t really know what crabs were.  We knew vaguely they were something one acquired in the genital region generally from a sexual encounter and are considered embarrassing.  So, let’s delve into the question:  what are crabs?

The scientific name for what is generally referred to as a “crab” is phthirus pubis (pronounced how it looks, I’m sure).  It is also referred to as pubic louse or crab louse, named so for its slight resemblance to crabs.  (Remember, too, that the word “cancer” comes from the Latin word for crab, via the Greek carcinoma also meaning crab.  What’s up with that?)  These lice are actually insect parasites that feed entirely on blood and live on human hairs.  Pubic lice are a different species than body lice and head lice.  They are whitish-gray in color, though are temporarily reddish after feeding.  They are usually 1-2 millimeters in size, with females being larger than males for the purpose of producing eggs.

Pubic lice, in spite of their name, can infest more than just the pubic region.  Though they are most often found in the pubic region they can also be found in hair on the abdomen, under the arms, in beards and mustaches, as well as eyelashes and eyebrows.  Crabs, if you will, are most often transmitted between hosts through close physical contact, i. e. sex.  However, they can be transferred between family members or roommates who share towels, beddings, or clothes.  Rarely, pubic lice can be acquired from public toilet seats, though this is very unlikely.  Crabs are more commonly found among adults, though they can be found among children.

Symptoms of a pubic lice infection include itching in the pubic region, visible nits or lice, lesions due to bites, and sometimes secondary infection of the bite-induced lesions.  Pubic lice can be diagnosed by a healthcare professional by visual examination and may further review a found louse under a microscope to confirm its species (pubic, body, or head louse).  Treatment consists of a treatment shampoo or wash that contains chemicals such as pyrethrins and piperonyl butoxide followed by combing to remove remaining nits.  These treatments are available over-the-counter.  For extreme infestations that persist following treatment, a prescription of lidane shampoo may be necessary.

Pubic lice are usually easily cured, though they will not go away on their own.  If pubic lice are found it is prudent to be tested for other sexually transmitted diseases, as most transmissions of crabs are through unprotected, non-monogamous sex.  Shaved or waxed pubic areas may help prevent infestations of crabs but will not stop all crabs.  Shaving already infested pubic hair will not stop the infestation.

So, did you learn anything new?  Maybe, maybe not.  Either way, I hope you can avoid acquiring pubic lice.  Questions or comments?  Spill the beans.


2 thoughts on “Crabs: What Are They?

  1. Hippocrates described the cut surface of a breast cancer as a carcinoma because it looked like a crab stretching out its legs.

  2. It is important to realize that crabs can be found in other areas than just the pelvic region. They can also be found on the thighs along side the pelvis, occasionally in the hair around the ankle area, and sadly, even in facial hair (including the eyebrows), should someone have oral sex with a person that has crabs.

    Watch your stuff!

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