What is head lice?

Head lice in children: Overview

Head lice are tiny bugs that can live in the hair and on the head. Live lice are tan to grayish white. They're about the size of a sesame seed. It may be easiest to find them on the back of your child's neck at the hairline or behind the ears. When your child has lice, all people living in your home need to be carefully checked and then treated if they have it.

Lice eggs (nits) may be easier to see than live lice. They look like tiny yellow or white dots attached to the hair, close to the scalp. Nits can look like dandruff. But you can't pick them off with your fingernail or brush them away.

Lice aren't dangerous. They don't spread disease or have anything to do with how clean someone is. The lice may make your child's head itch. This is because of your child's body's reaction to the lice bites.

You can treat lice and their eggs with prescription or over-the-counter medicines. After treatment, your child's skin may itch for a week or more.

Head lice are most common in preschool and elementary school children. Children who have lice should be able to keep going to school. Experts recommend that children should not be kept from school because of lice or nits.

What are the symptoms of head lice?

Head lice may cause an itchy feeling on the scalp. This is because of your body's reaction to the lice bites. But not everyone has itching, and not all itching means you have lice. Lice can be on the scalp for 4 to 6 weeks before itching starts.

How are head lice treated?

There are several over-the-counter medicines that kill lice. Most of them are creams or shampoos that you put on the scalp. There are also prescription medicines. Each type of medicine is a little different, so it's important to follow the directions carefully. Your doctor or pharmacist can answer any questions you may have.

How can you help prevent head lice from spreading?

  • Check everyone in your home for lice. If your child shares a bed with someone, the other person should be treated too. (Don't worry about pets. They can't get lice.)
  • Teach your children not to share anything that comes into contact with hair. For example, don't share hair bands, towels, helmets, hats, combs, or brushes.
  • You don't need to spend a lot of time or money deep cleaning your home. But it's a good idea to:
    • Soak hairbrushes, combs, barrettes, and other items for 10 minutes in hot water (at least 130 °F [54.4 °C]).
    • Machine-wash clothes, bedding, towels, and hats that touched the head in the last 2 days in hot water (at least 130 °F [54.4 °C]). Dry them in a hot dryer. If you don't have access to a washing machine or if items can't be washed or dried, store these items in a sealed plastic bag for 14 days.
    • Vacuum carpets, mattresses, couches, and other upholstered furniture.

How are head lice diagnosed?

You can check for head lice at home. Use a fine-toothed comb. Part small sections of hair in a place with good light. Using a magnifying glass can help. You can also check with a doctor, who will ask about symptoms and check the scalp and hair for lice and nits.

How can you care for yourself when you have head lice?

Try an over-the-counter medicine to kill lice. Your doctor or pharmacist can suggest a medicine. Follow the directions carefully. Some medicines require a second treatment. If you find live lice after treatment, check with your doctor. You may need a different treatment. Try an over-the-counter anti-itch cream to calm itching if needed.

Head lice

Lice in a person's hair part, with close-up of louse and louse eggs (nits).

Adult head lice (or "louse" for just one) are approximately the size of a sesame seed and can vary in color from white to brown to dark gray.

Louse eggs (nits) are much smaller and look like light gray or brown ovals that are glued to individual hair shafts.

Head lice spread from one person to another through close bodily contact. Sometimes they spread when people share clothing or personal items such as hats or hairbrushes.

What are head lice?

Head lice are tiny insects that live close to the scalp, where they lay and attach their eggs (nits). Lice can't survive unless they are close to the scalp.

  • Live lice are tan to grayish white. They're about the size of a sesame seed. It may be easiest to find them on the back of the neck at the hairline or behind the ears.
  • Nits look like tiny yellow or white dots attached to the hair, close to the scalp. They're often easier to see than live lice. Nits may look like dandruff. But you can't pick them off with your fingernail or brush them away.

Head lice are most common in children. They can spread anytime a child's head comes into contact with the head or hair of someone who has lice. Lice can't fly or jump.

Head lice aren't dangerous. They don't spread disease or have anything to do with how clean someone is.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.