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The Facts of Lice

Head lice are small wingless insects. They look like walking, light grey sesame seeds, and have six pincer-like claws.

Head lice infest people's hair and suck blood from their scalps.

Anyone can get head lice but head lice most often infest school children. Because they are small and grab tightly onto hairs, head lice are hard to see. "Nits" (their eggs) are easier to see. Female lice glue the nits directly onto the hair shaft next to the scalp. Nits are found anywhere on the head, most often at the nape of the neck and behind the ears, but also in eyebrows and eyelashes.

Head lice do not transmit any diseases but they often cause itching and discomfort.


The best and most effective way to find head lice is by "wet combing." Wet combing involves washing the hair and applying conditioner, then combing through with an ordinary comb to remove tangles. A fine tooth detection comb is then pulled downwards through the hair, a section at a time, keeping the comb close to the scalp. The comb is checked for lice after each section.

If head lice are found, other family members and classmates should be checked. Checks should be continued following any scalp treatment to ensure that it has been effective and to detect any reinfestation.

Adult louse
(Image credit: CDC)

Adult: The adult louse is about the size of a sesame seed, has six legs, and is tan to greyish-white. In persons with dark hair, the adult louse will look darker. Females, which are usually larger than the males, lay eggs. Adult lice can live up to 30 days on a person's head. To live, adult lice need to feed on blood. If the louse falls off a person, it dies within 2 days.


Image of an adult head louse's claws
Adult louse claws
(Photo credit: CDC)
They are most commonly found on the scalp, behind the ears and near the neckline at the back of the neck. Head lice hold on to hair with hook-like claws found at the end of each of their six legs. Head lice are rarely found on the body, eyelashes, or eyebrows.


Illustration of a head lice egg
Illustration of egg on a hair shaft

(Image credit: CDC)
Egg/Nit: Nits are head lice eggs. They are very small, about the size of a knot in thread, hard to see, and are often confused for dandruff or hair spray droplets. Nits are laid by the adult female at the base of the hair shaft nearest the scalp. They are firmly attached to the hair shaft. They are oval and usually yellow to white. Nits take about 1 week to hatch. Eggs that are likely to hatch are usually located within 1/4 inch of the scalp.
Head lice nymph
Nymph form

(Photo credit: CDC)
Nymph: The nit hatches into a baby louse called a nymph. It looks like an adult head louse, but is smaller. Nymphs mature into adults about 7 days after hatching. To live, the nymph must feed on blood.


How can I treat a head lice infestation?

The most important step in treating a head lice infestation is to treat the person and other family members with head lice with medication to kill the lice. Wash clothing and bedding worn or used by the infested person in the 2-day period just before treatment is started.

Treat the infested person: Requires using an over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription medication. Follow these treatment steps:

  1. Before applying treatment, remove all clothing from the waist up.
  2. Apply lice medicine, also called pediculicide (peh-DICK-you-luh-side), according to label instructions. If your child has extra long hair (longer than shoulder length), you may need to use a second bottle. Pay special attention to instructions on the bottle regarding how long the medication should be left on and whether rinsing the hair is recommended after treatment.
    WARNING: Do not use a creme rinse or combination shampoo/conditioner before using lice medicine. Do not re-wash hair for 1-2 days after treatment.
  3. Have the infested person put on clean clothing after treatment.
  4. If a few live lice are still found 8-12 hours after treatment, but are moving more slowly than before, do not retreat. Comb dead and remaining live lice out of the hair. The medicine may take longer to kill lice.
  5. If, after 8-12 hours of treatment, no dead lice are found and lice seem as active as before, the medicine may not be working. See your health care provider for a different medication; follow treatment directions.
  6. Nit (head lice egg) combs, often found in lice medicine packages, should be used to comb nits and lice from the hair shaft. Many flea combs made for cats and dogs are also effective.
  7. After treatment, check hair and comb with a nit comb to remove nits and lice every 2-3 days. Continue to check for 2-3 weeks until you are sure all lice and nits are gone.
  8. If using OTC pediculicides, retreat in 7-10 days. If using the prescription drug malathion, retreat in 7-10 days ONLY if crawling bugs are found. Click here for instructions on how to use malathion to treat head lice.

Treat the household: Head lice do not survive long if they fall off a person and cannot feed. You don't need to spend a lot of time or money on housecleaning activities. Follow these steps to help avoid re-infestation by lice that have recently fallen off the hair or crawled onto clothing or furniture.

  1. To kill lice and nits, machine wash all washable clothing and bed linens that the infested person wore or used during the 2 days before treatment. Use the hot water (130F) cycle. Dry laundry using high heat for at least 20 minutes.
  2. Dry clean clothing that is not washable, (coats, hats, scarves, etc.).

    Store all clothing, stuffed animals, comforters, etc., that cannot be washed or dry cleaned into a plastic bag; seal for 2 weeks.

  3. Soak combs and brushes for 1 hour in rubbing alcohol, Lysol*, or wash with soap and hot (130F) water.
  4. Vacuum the floor and furniture. The risk of getting re-infested from a louse that has fallen onto a carpet or sofa is very small. Don't spend a lot of time on this. Just vacuum the places where the infested person usually sits or lays. Do not use fumigant sprays; they can be toxic if inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

Prevent Reinfestation: Lice are most commonly spread directly by head-to-head contact and much less frequently by lice that have crawled onto clothing or belongings. As a short-term measure to control a head lice outbreak in a community, school, or camp, you can teach children to avoid playtime and other activities that are likely to spread lice.

  • Avoid head-to-head contact common during play at school and at home (sports activities, on a playground, slumber parties, at camp).
  • Do not share clothing, such as hats, scarves, coats, sports uniforms, or hair ribbons.
  • Do not share infested combs, brushes, or towels.
  • Do not lie on beds, couches, pillows, carpets, or stuffed animals that have recently been in contact with an infested person.

My child has head lice. I don't. Should I treat myself to prevent being infested?

No, although anyone living with an infested person can get head lice. Check household contacts for lice and nits every 2-3 days. Treat only if crawling lice or nits (eggs) within a 1/4 inch of the scalp are found.

I have heard that head lice medications don't work, or that head lice are resistant to medication. Is this true?

Like germs that are resistant to antibiotics, some lice also develop resistance to the medicine used to kill them. Resistance tends to be scattered. It may be present in one neighborhood, but not another. However, there are many reasons why medications may seem not to work.

  • Misdiagnosis of a head lice infestation. A diagnosis can be made if a person has crawling bugs on the head or many lice eggs within 1/4 inch (about the width of your little finger) of the scalp. Nits found on the hair shaft further than 1/4 inch from the scalp have already hatched. Treatment is not recommended for people who only have nits further than 1/4 inch away from the scalp.
  • Not following treatment instructions fully. Common problems include:
    1. making the hair too wet with water before applying a pediculicide this dilutes the pediculicide
    2. using a creme rinse or conditioner shampoo before applying a pediculicide this interferes with the medication
    3. failure to leave the pediculicide on long enough follow drug label instructions
    4. re-shampooing the hair again immediately after applying the pediculicide dont rewash hair for 1-2 days after treatment
    5. inadequate amount of medication extra long hair may require two bottles of pediculide to fully wet the hair
    6. not combing. Using medication alone may not be enough to cure a head lice infestation. Combing the hair to remove lice and eggs has been shown to help.
  • Medication not working at all (resistance). If head lice medication does not kill any crawling bugs within 24 hours, then resistance is likely. If the medication kills some of the bugs or the bugs are twitching 24 hours after treatment then resistance to medication is probably not occurring.
  • Medication kills crawling bugs, but is not able to penetrate the eggs. It is very difficult for head lice medication to penetrate the nit shell. Medication may effectively kill crawling bugs, but may not treat the nits. This is why follow-up treatment is recommended.
  • New infection. You can get infested more than once with head lice. Children often get re-infested from a playmate. If your child is infested, discuss it with parents of the children your child plays with. Treating all infested children at the same time will help prevent reinfestation.

Should my pets be treated for head lice?

No. Head lice do not live on pets.

My child is under 2 years old and has been diagnosed with head lice. Can I treat him or her with prescription or OTC drugs?

For children under 2 years old, remove crawling bugs and nits using a nit comb. If this does not work, ask your child's health care provider for treatment recommendations. The safety of head lice medications has not been tested in children 2 years of age and under.

What OTC medications are available to treat head lice?

Many head lice medications are available at your local drug store. Each OTC product contains one of the following active ingredients.

  1. Pyrethrins (pie-WREATH-rins) often combined with piperonyl butoxide (pie-PER-a-nil beu-TOX-side):
    Brand name products include A-200*, Pronto*, R&C*, Rid*, Triple X*.

    Pyrethrins are natural extracts from the chrysanthemum flower. Though safe and effective, pyrethrins only kill crawling lice, not unhatched nits. A second treatment is recommended in 7-10 days to kill any newly hatched lice. Treatment failures are common.

  2. Permethrin (per-meth-rin):
    Brand name product: Nix*.

    Permethrins are similar to natural pyrethrins. Permethrins are safe and effective and may continue to kill newly hatched lice for several days after treatment. A second treatment may be necessary in 7-10 days to kill any newly hatched lice that may have hatched after residual medication from the first treatment was no longer active. Treatment failures are common.


What are the prescription drugs used to treat head lice?

  1. Malathion (Ovide*): When used as directed, malathion is effective in treating lice. Some medication remains on the hair and can kill newly hatched lice for seven days after treatment. Malathion is intended for use on people 6 years of age and older. Few side-effects have been reported. Malathion may sting if applied to open sores caused by scratching. The medication is flammable. Click here for instructions on how to use malathion to treat head lice.
  2. Lindane (Kwell*): When used as directed, the drug is probably safe. Overuse, misuse, or accidentally swallowing Lindane can be toxic to the brain and other parts of the nervous system. For those reasons Lindane is generally used only if other medications have failed. Lindane should not be used if excessive scratching has caused open sores on the head. It should be used with caution in persons who weigh less than 110 pounds.

Which head lice medicine is best for me?

If you arent sure, ask your pharmacist or health care provider. When using the medicine, always follow the instructions on the package insert unless the physician directs otherwise.

When treating head lice

  1. Do not use extra amounts of the lice medication unless instructed. These drugs are insecticides and can be dangerous when misused or overused.
  2. Do not treat the infested person more than 3 times with the same medication if it does not seem to work. See your health care provider for alternative medication.
  3. Do not mix head lice drugs

Should household sprays be used to kill adult lice?

No. Spraying the house is NOT recommended. Fumigants and room sprays can be toxic if inhaled or absorbed through the skin.


Body Lice

Body lice (Pediculus humanus) are closely related to head lice, but are less frequently encountered in the US. As the name implies, body lice generally feed on the body, but may rarely be discovered on the scalp and facial hair. They usually remain on clothing near the skin, and generally deposit their eggs on or near the seams of garments. Body lice are acquired mainly through direct contact with an infested person or their clothing and bedding, and are most commonly found on individuals who infrequently change or wash their clothes. A change to clean clothes, and laundering of infested garments (especially drying with high heat or ironing), are generally effective to eliminate this burden. 


Pubic (Crab) Lice


Pubic or crab lice (Pthirus pubis) have a short crab-like body easily distinguished from that of head and body lice. Pubic lice are most frequently found around the pubic region of the infested person, but may also be found elsewhere on the body (including facial hair and eyelashes). The infestation by pubic lice is termed pthiriasis. Mechanical removal of these lice and their eggs is the preferred method of treatment. Because pubic lice are acquired mainly through sexual contact, their presence may be associated with other sexually-transmitted diseases. Pubic lice on a child may cause the physician to consider the possibility that the child may have had inappropriate contact. Pubic lice may also be acquired through more innocent means, such as by sharing a bed with an infested person.



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Some comments
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This  site is fascinating! We just finished watching the new David Attenborough series on "Life in the Undergrowth". These creatures you are identifying are very important to life on the planet and I am very happy to have discovered your site after watching the series! Spellbinding! thank you.... Beth

I'd like to add my sincere thanks to everyone responsible for this very informative web site, especially Ed Saugstad.  Publishing 1000 pest photos and identifying them must have taken many hours. 
I recommend this site to all my students as a reliable learning resource.  Charles McD.   Toronto.

Congratulations for having received question #1000, and I'd also like to join the previous readers in thanking Ed Saugstad for his conscientious work of providing great answers to all questions; I also like this site a lot, I even added it to my browser's toolbar! Best regards, -Peter (Canton, MI)

This is a wonderful web-site! I learn something every time I visit, and have even had a couple of our own pests identified by your resident experts (including the weevil, #989 which is presently visiting our home, in northern Alberta) :)
    What I really want is to send a big thank-you to Ed Saugstad for the frequent responses and very helpful information, including web-links, for the many "bugs" that appear on these pages. He clearly loves what he is doing, and we are all beneficiaries of his beneficence.  Thank you, Ed!    
Ted Drouin,  retired biologist (not entomologist, though)

Thanks to Ted Drouin and others for the kind words - this actually is fun, and teaches me how little I really know! 
Ed Saugstad

I do some photography of various critters found around my house (central Okanagan, BC) as well as exotics from private collections.  Often I have pictures I cannot complete as I have no name.  Your site helps me find these names.  Keep up the good work. 
John Whittall 



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