How Do You Know If You Have Lice?

Lice are tiny insects that live in the hair and skin of humans. Although they are very small, lice are visible with the naked eye. Lice have several variations including head and pubic. Head lice are the most common variety. This type of lice is easily transmittable from human to human. Lice can live on the human scalp and hair up to 30 days, and their eggs, or nits, can live upwards of 2 weeks. In order to protect yourself against lice, there are steps you can take to avoid lice infestation.

Head lice are spread by being in close proximity with other people who have lice. Lice are not an indicator of poor hygiene or social status as anyone is susceptible to an infestation once contact has been made. School age children are the group with the highest incidence of lice reports. To avoid getting lice, do not share hats, hair brushes, combs or hair accessories with others who may have lice. Also, avoid contact with sheets, bedding or towels of someone who has lice.

Signs You Have Lice

Common symptoms of being infected with lice include intense itching of the hair and scalp, small red bumps on the scalp, neck and back, and pearly white specks on the hair shaft or scalp that are difficult to remove. Any one, or all, of these symptoms signifies that lice may be to blame. In order to be certain, part the hair and look for physical signs of lice, namely, their eggs.

If you suspect that you have a problem, there are a few ways to get rid of lice. The quickest and easiest way to get rid of lice is by shaving the hair completely and thoroughly cleaning any items that may have come in contact with the lice. Secondly, rinsing the hair with a shampoo containing 1% permethrin will kill the lice. However, the eggs must still be removed. This special shampoo is available over the counter at any drug store.

Lice are easily treatable despite the temporary discomfort they cause. However, if caught early, lice can be eradicated with minimal disruption to everyday life. By following the simple steps above, lice are preventable.

What are Body Lice

Besides just living in your hair, lice can  also find ways to inhabit the clothing you wear.

Body Lice Live in ClothesIf the clothing is worn repeatedly without washing, it might be the ideal place for nits to hatch and the louse larvae to mature. If a living human, ready to furnish blood, is putting on the same clothes day after day, the louse has a built-in life of ease.

So dealing with body lice is really just an issue of hygiene.  Simply washing your clothing and bedding regularly you can completely avoid the problem.

The Head Lice Life Cycle

The life cycle of lice have 3 distinct stages: egg, nymph and adult.

Lice Eggs (Nits)

Lice eggs are called nits (hence the term, nit picking). The are small (0.8mm by 0.3mm), oval shaped and ussually a yellowish white.  Their small size makes them hard to see, and many times they are confused for dandruff.

When the nits are laid by the female louse they are ‘cemented’ to the base of a shaft of hair.  This securely holds the egg in place. Nits are usually found attached within 6mm of the scalp.

The nits take about a week to hatch (between 6 and 9 days).

Nymphs

When a nit hatches it releases a nymph.  The remaining egg shell becomes easier to see as it turns a dull yellow.  It still remains attached to the hair shaft.

Nymphs look very similar to adult lice, just smaller.  They are about the size of a pinhead.

Over a 7 day period after hatching the nymphs will mature and molt 3 times, after which time they are considered adults.

Adults

An adult louse is about the same size as a sesame seed.  Each of their 6 legs has claws that are specialty adapted to grab and hold hairs.  Adult lice will be a tan to grayish-white color.  Interestingly, in individuals with darker hair, the adult louse will appear darker.  Female lice tend to be larger then the males and can lay up to 8 nits a day.

Adult lice live for up to 30 days.

Information Source: US Center for Disease Control (CDC)

The Head Lice Lifecycle

Having lice problems?  Check out our handy guide to get rid of lice.

How to Get Rid of Lice

A Nit Lice Egg attached to a HairGetting rid of lice requires determination, equipment, and concerted effort. You probably will need some help, at least for the hair lice. Find some sympathetic soul who has the time to do a thorough job in helping you.

First get rid of the nits. If you soak the scalp with dish detergent it will loosen the cement that holds the nits to the hair.

Then with a metal nit brush, obtainable at the pharmacy, carefully go over all the hair next to the scalp, thoroughly removing all the nits. Expect that you do not see them all and cover all the scalp. If the hair is thick, repeat the whole procedure.

Nit CombThen, use a preparation that will kill all of the living lice left behind in the nit cleaning process. Clean up all the places where you have put your head and hair such as pillows and other bedding, hats and scarves and regular clothing. Thoroughly launder all such items. Use the louse-killing preparation in all of these places. It is hard to be too thorough.

A week later, repeat the entire procedure. This may do the job, but don’t be too sure. Keep careful watch for tell-tell signs that you didn’t get all the lice. If they show up again, repeat the two week treatment.

Closeup Lice Pictures

Lice PicturesThe following are closeup lice pictures.

While no one really likes to look at pictures of lice, these should help you identify lice eggs (called nits) and the actual louse itself so you can better deal with them.

A Nit (a lice egg)

This picture shows a nit attached to a hair.

A Nit (a lice egg)

Adult Lice

The following picture of lice shows an adult louse in someones hair.

Pictures of Lice

And another picture showing lice at different stages of age.

Lice Closeup

Lice: Questions and Answers

What do the Lice Eat?

Lice feed off small quantities of the blood of their host.  This feeding causes the itching sensation.  Adult lice need to feed several times a day.

If a louse gets separated (falls off, gets knocked off) from their host they can only survive a day or two before they die.

So Where do You Find Lice?

Pretty much anywhere.  Head lice infestations are common and can occur anywhere in the world.  Lice are a particular problem among preschool and elementary aged children (age 3 – 11).