How Pubic Lice suck (your blood)

crab louse

A pubic louse, or crab louse

I became an unwilling expert on pubic lice a couple years ago when I bought “crabs” online at the request of a reporter. Really. It’s a long story, and you can listen to a version of it here; the abridged version is someone calling himself “Lice Lice Baby” claimed he would sell you “Giant Japanese Pubic Lice” as pets.  He re-branded his crab lice as “Seamonkeys in your Pants.”

The French call pubic lice “papillon d’amour”, but for all the happy euphemistic talk about “the ultimate sharing of your love,” crab lice are blood-sucking parasites. At the time, my primary concern was pointing out that deliberately infesting yourself with pubic lice was probably not a very good idea, and a public health risk.

This somehow made me the go-to person online for pubic lice, which is not, frankly, an expertise I particularly aspired to.  I was talking to someone recently about public lice (now a regular occurrence) and I realized that I didn’t know the specific mechanism by which pubic lice suck (aside from the fairly obvious suckage of being infested). I did a little research, and what I found out actually made pubic lice creepier. I did not think that was possible.

One of my primary resources was a paper with this wonderful title:

BURNS D.A. & SIMS T.A. (1988). A closer look at Pthirus pubis, British Journal of Dermatology, 118 (4) 497-503. DOI:

A closer look, indeed! This is a scanning electron micrograph of the sucking end of a crab louse, magnified about 1000 times.

pube lice haustellum

Pthirus pubis is a member of the Order Anoplura or ‘sucking lice’. It is a solenophage (vessel feeder—from the Greek ‘pipe’ + ‘eating’), introducing its mouthparts directly into a blood vessel to withdraw blood. The components of the mouthparts responsible for probing the skin and piercing a blood vessel are kept withdrawn within the head unless the insect is feeding… In the front of the head is a small, snout-like tube, the haustellum, which is soft, eversible, and armed with teeth. Figure 5 shows the haustellum retracted, and the buccal teeth are clearly visible.

But wait! There’s more!

When the louse is about to feed… the buccal teeth rotate outwards. The teeth cut into the epidermis [skin] with a movement compared to that of a rotary saw, and the haustellum is gradually driven into the dermis. It eventually comes to rest with the buccal teeth fully everted, anchoring the mouthparts in the skin….The stylets are advanced into the dermis as a single bundle and probe for a small blood vessel. Once the stylet bundle has pierced a blood vessel feeding begins.  [emphasis mine]

electron micrograph of crab liceEgad.  That little tube? It’s like a hypodermic needle going into one of your blood vessels.

If you haven’t already unconsciously crossed your legs while reading this, this next bit should do the trick. One of the characteristic signs of pubic lice feeding is little blue spots on the skin. It’s a combination of blood leaking out after that mouth-needle is withdrawn and a reaction to the saliva of the louse.  Another symptom of a crab louse infestation is described as “black powder in your underwear.”  That powder is your dried up blood, after the louse has digested it and pooped it out.

I’m not sure that anyone besides me really needed to know this information, but it is a fascinating example of how insect mouth parts have evolved to make them highly successful external parasites!

Related Posts:

Pubic Lice are NOT going extinct

imageOh, this story is making the rounds again:

Brazilian Bikini Waxes Make Crab Lice Endangered Species
Pubic lice, the crab-shaped insects that have dwelled in human groins since the beginning of history, are disappearing. Doctors say bikini waxing may be the reason. Waning infestations of the bloodsuckers have been linked by doctors to pubic depilation

Like the last time, this story is getting a lot of popular press.  However, what is presented is a lot of anecdotal evidence—stories without a lot of actual data.

I will say that the evidence is much better than the last time this story made the rounds, and this is a far better written story.  However, please note that conspicuously sprinkled through the article are links to a bunch of major grooming appliance and beauty product companies.  Gosh, I can’t imagine why they might have a vested interest in promoting the idea that waxing and shaving your short and curlies might prevent pubic lice.

Here’s an important part of the story:

“Incidence data aren’t kept by the World Health Organization in Geneva because the gray, six-legged, millimeter-long louse doesn’t transmit disease, and national authorities such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and U.K.’s Health Protection Agency don’t collect the information.”

We only have anecdotal data from local health centers, such as the ones interviewed in the story. And:

“Historically, it’s been very difficult to get incidence data on pubic lice simply because people don’t like to report it,” said Richard Russell, director of medical entomology at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital. “In over 40 years, I could count on two hands the number of people who had brought pubic lice in for identification and admitted to knowing what they were.”

If you want to start trimming your shrubbery, go right ahead. But don’t do it because you think it will protect yourself from pubic lice, do it because you want to (for some inexplicable reason that I don’t understand myself, frankly.)  You should also be aware that injuries from genital grooming are on the rise, and it is not without risk.  This is rightly pointed out in the article, for which I again give them props.

The article ends with this quote from a scientist. Emphasis mine in this quote:

“The life cycle of the female pubic louse ends if it’s unable to find a suitable place to lay eggs, Russell said, making it plausible that pubic hair removal is reducing populations of the insect.  “It makes sense from the point of the view of the biology of the beast, but how you’d ever find out, I don’t know,” Russell said in a telephone interview. “

We probably won’t ever really know the answer question of habitat destruction for the crab louse. This is ‘news’ only because crotch crickets are interesting because of the pastures they graze in.  (Which, of course, is exactly why -I- wrote about them!)

But don’t forget that just because a few people in the US and Down Under (snorf!) remove their body hair, the vast majority of people have intact lady gardens.  This is an attention-getting article, not news.

My earlier post debunking the “Pube Lice Going Extinct” claim