Sep 3, 2020
Dermatologists predict resurgence of pubic lice as popularity of waxing wanes
For many years, scientists have been writing the obituary of pithris pubis, more commonly known as the pubic louse, due to the deforestation of its natural habitat*. However, dermatologists presenting at the Virtual Annual Meeting of the British Association of Dermatologists (September 2020), are of the opinion that these reports are premature. Information that may be warmly received by conservationists, but by few others.
The pubic louse has infested humans for thousands of years, with archaeologists discovering specimens in the UK as far back as the 1st century AD. The pubic louse evolved from its ancestor, the gorilla louse, about 3.3 million years ago and adapted to live in areas on the human body with coarse, dense hair.
Hair removal has been popular in many cultures throughout history, but globalisation has made changes in depilation habits harder for pubic lice to weather. A change in attitudes towards body hair around the millennium, on a scale not previously possible, the so called ‘Sex and the City factor’, put the pubic louse under considerable strain. Other factors in this near-extinction-experience included a rise in over-the-counter treatments and improved sexual health awareness.
Dermatologists from Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital point to three factors for their belief that pubic lice are here to stay:
• Changing social attitudes towards hair removal, with less pressure to remove pubic hair, provides pubic lice with a habitat and makes transmission of pubic lice easier
• Resistance amongst pubic lice towards common chemical treatments such as permethrin is increasing, making eradication harder. Something that has already been seen in head lice
• Climate change, whilst warming some areas, will cool others. Pubic lice have been documented to increase in numbers during colder weather, which could lead to pockets of pithris pubis springing up, where previously they have not flourished
Dr Priya Patel, one of the researchers at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, said:
“Reports of the demise of pubic lice seem to have been made prematurely. This is by no means a disaster, as pubic lice are likely to remain an uncommon issue in this country, even if they are not completely eradicated.
“It has been suggested that Carrie Bradshaw and co. were responsible for the changing attitudes that so nearly wiped out this pest in the first decade of this century. The series certainly overlaps with the period which marks the low point for pubic lice. But having survived that, the pubic louse seems to be here to stay, at least for as long as humans are around.”
Matthew Gass, spokesperson for the British Association of Dermatologists, said:
“There has been much speculation in the last two decades about pubic lice going the way of the dodo. Frankly, I suspect that they would be missed rather less. That said, for all the talk of deforestation of their natural habitat, they have clung on.
“Although we are unlikely to ever truly eradicate this pest, it’s arguable that the ‘cure’ is worse than the disease for most people. Issues stemming from waxing, and other methods of widespread pubic hair removal, such as ingrown hairs or skin irritation are more common than pubic lice are ever likely to be and represent a greater overall health burden to the average person.”
*For more information on the link between hair removal and declining rates of pubic lice, please see this study from 2014: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24825336/
Notes to editors:
If using this presentation, please ensure you mention that it was given at the British Association of Dermatologists’ Annual Conference.
The virtual conference will be held from September 2020, and is attended by approximately 1,500 UK and worldwide dermatologists and dermatology nurses.
“The pestilential past of Pthirus pubis”; P. Patel and N.J. Levell, Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, Norwich, U.K.
About the British Association of Dermatologists
The British Association of Dermatologists is the central association of practising UK dermatologists. Our aim is to continually improve the treatment and understanding of skin disease. For further information about the charity, visit https://www.skinhealthinfo.org.uk/
The British Association of Dermatologists publishes two world-renowned dermatology journals, both published by Wiley. The British Journal of Dermatology is one of the top dermatology journals in the world, and publishes papers on all aspects of the biology and pathology of the skin. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1365-2133