Everything You Need to Know About Crabs

The microscopic crab louse may be in decline, but it’s hardly gone.
September 26, 2017, 5:35pm
illo crabs
Theresa Chromati

When it comes to worrisome STDs, pubic lice—or "crabs" as they're more commonly called—probably aren't on the top of your list. Who gets crabs in 2017? That's just for Woodstock hippies and World War II sailors on shore leave. It's so rare that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "doesn't conduct routine monitoring or surveillance for pubic lice," according to Amy Rowland, a CDC spokeswoman.

The Daily Show mocked pubic lice as a "product of a bygone era," and even serious health researchers have published studies with titles like "Pubic lice: an endangered species?" In that particular study, from 2014, researchers in the UK looked for correlations between pubic lice and a healthy briar patch down below. From their findings, reports of crabs have declined from 1.8 percent to 0.07 percent in a decade, and 94 percent of the patients with pubic lice had untended genital gardens. The "increased incidence of hair removal," the researchers concluded, could only lead to the eventual "complete eradication" of crabs.

But to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of itchy pubes have been greatly exaggerated. The microscopic crab louse may be in decline, but it's hardly gone. Some accounts estimate that up to 10 percent of the global population have crabs. Could that mean it won't be long till crabs become a minor annoyance for sexually active adults yet again?

Pubic lice have been infesting human groins for at least three million years. To help you stay safe, here are answers to your most burning questions.

Are pubic lice different from head lice?
Head lice tend to be bigger, three millimeters in length compared to around one to 1.6 millimeter for pubic lice. And they each keep to their separate corners of the body, although pubic lice "can sometimes be found on coarse hair elsewhere on the body," says the CDC's Rowland. "For example, the eyebrows, eyelashes, beard, mustache, chest, and armpits." But other than their size and human body real estate preferences, there's not much difference. They're both wingless parasitic insects that spread through human contact, attach themselves to hair shafts, and feast on human blood.

Why are they called "crabs"? They're not mini-crustaceans, are they?
Nope. But viewed under a microscope, they vaguely resemble crabs. They've got six legs, a round body, and claws that allow them to cling to pubic hair. Honestly, we think they look way more menacing than a lowly crab. If it was up to us, we would've named them after the aquatic monster from the 1966 Godzilla movie Ebirah, Horror of the Deep. We're totally not kidding. Look at this comparison: The top image is a microscope mugshot of the crab louse, the bottom is the Godzilla baddie Ebirah.

How do I know if I've got Ebirah, Horror of… I mean crabs? Is it just itching, or is there another symptom I should look for?
Itching is the main symptom. You might catch a glimpse of the little fuckers, if you know what to look for. They're tan to grayish-white, they cling to the roots of your pubic hairs, and they're very, very, very small. Unless you're in the habit of staring at your crotch, you probably wouldn't notice them. At least not until the itching starts. The itching is one of those, "Whoa, that doesn't feel right" red flags. It usually begins five days after the crabs have set up shop in your pubes.

The itching is basically skin irritation, caused by those pesky parasites biting into your skin and injecting their saliva, which helps gets the blood flowing in their direction. The itching is worse at night, because that's when crabs like to burrow. They prefer a host that isn't moving as much. So while you sleep, the tiny creatures from a Godzilla movie that live in your pubic shrubbery are feeding on your body like vampires, but only in the tiny patch of hairy skin just above the most sensitive organ on your body.

Okay, I hate everything about this. How do I make the crabs go away?
You don't need a doctor to get rid of them, but you should probably go anyway. (We'll get to that in a minute.) Pubic lice is easily treated with an over-the-counter lice shampoo. They're pretty easy to find, anywhere from Amazon to Walmart. Just make sure it contains "1 percent permethrin or a mousse containing pyrethrins and piperonyl butoxide," Rowland says. "These medications are safe and effective when used exactly according to the instructions in the package or on the label."

Great. I Amazon Primed that shit before I finished that last paragraph. Now I'm fine, right?
Well, don't get too relaxed. "Even after treatment, most nits or eggs will remain attached to the hair," says Fred Wyand, a spokesperson for the American Sexual Health Association. "Nits can be removed with fingernails or a fine-tooth comb. And your clothes and bedding may still be infested with crabs."

They're in my bed?
Relax! We're not saying you need to bug-bomb your house. Just do a load of laundry. You can handle that, right? Rowland also recommends "not sharing clothing, bedding, and towels used by an infested person," but you probably didn't need us to tell you that, right? If you think somebody gave you crabs, maybe the last thing you should be saying to them is, "Hey, throw me that wet towel when you're done with it, kay?"

What about toilet seats? Can I get crabs from a toilet seat?

Are you sure?
We're very sure. Rowland calls this a "common misconception." Which is a nice way of saying, "I am so tired of hearing this crap." "This would be extremely rare because lice cannot live long away from a warm human body and they do not have feet designed to hold onto or walk on smooth surfaces such as toilet seats," Rowland says, rationally.

Are crabs dangerous? Can it lead to something more serious?
Well, that's two different questions, isn't it? In and of itself, crabs are harmless. They're more a nuisance than a cause for medical alarm. But that said, if you have crabs, it wouldn't be the worst decision to make an appointment with your family doctor anyway.

"While crabs are not always sexually transmitted, most cases are acquired sexually, and STDs in general tend to be more common in those with pubic lice," Wyand says. Which is a nice way of saying, if your partner has crabs, it'd be a mistake to think, "Well at least that's all they have." Just go get tested, okay?

Read This Next: Oh Good, There Are New STDs Spreading