Head Lice Causes, Symptoms and Treatments


What are the head lice?

A head louse is a small, wingless insect that lives in human hair and on the scalp. It is a parasite and depends on the blood from scalp vessels for its nutrition.  Head lice are found in heads of both males and females. However, kids are mostly targeted as they catch it easily by others’ head. They spread from one person to another, they are annoying and sometimes it’s really hard to get rid of them.

What Parents Should Know?

Although head lice are quite frustrating, they are not dangerous by any means. They are not responsible for any particular disease apart from an itch that can irritate a child causing him to scratch his scalp excessively.

It is ideal to treat them at once when you find them as their spread from one person to another can be a problematic if it is not dealt properly and on the spot.

Different Types of Lice:

  1. Body Lice
  2. Head Lice
  3. Public Lice

1. Head Lice:

Head lice is the most common form that inhabits in humans. According to certain reports, an estimated 10 million people get infested in a year. All classes of the society are infected with girls being the more common gender to get them. Head lice are not affected by hair hygiene and the hair length also does not seem to have an influence on them. African Americans have a characteristic hair type that prevents them from being affected by hair lice.

2. Pubic Lice:

The pubic louse is somewhat different from head and body louse in terms of its morphology. It has three pairs of legs on either sides of its body, hence named Crab louse. It spreads in adults by direct sexual contact. In children the infection is spread by nonsexual means. Sometimes it may involve the axilla, the eyelashes and at times even the scalp. Contrary to what many people think, pubic lice do not spread from toilet seats.

3. Body Lice:

A body louse is a little larger compared to a head louse but it has similar appearance to it. Interesting thing about these lice is that they inhabit the clothing and they only move to human body when they have to feed. It is quite similar in terms of its life cycle to hair louse.

An important difference is that it can survive for up to 30 days without feeding on its host thus making it more resilient. They inhabit the seam areas of the clothes which come in close contact with the human body, this enables them to easily transmit onto the skin and get their blood supply. You can diagnose body lice by finding them in your clothes, in your bedding or in your linen. Look for them more in the seam regions.

Signs And Symptoms Of Head Lice:

Although very small in size, you can see head lice with your naked eye. Here are a few things that serve as the signs of head lice and should be looked for.

1. Lice, eggs or nits:

These appear as small, tan in color dots. Lice optimize the survival of their eggs and larvae by laying eggs very close to the base of the hair shaft adjacent to the scalp. This provides the eggs with an optimum temperature to keep them viable before birth. Nits look quite similar to dandruff; however unlike dandruff you cannot shake them off by brushing.
Unless the lice heavily infest the scalp, you can expect to see nits rather than live crawling larvae on the scalp. It takes about 1 to 2 weeks for the eggs to hatch. After the eggs have hatched, the shell appears clear or white and it strongly remains fixed to the hair shaft. This is the time when you can spot them most easily because the hair grows longer and the distance between the scalp and the shell increases.

2. Adult Lice and Nymphs:

The adult louse is almost the size of a sesame seed. It has grayish white or tan appearance. Nymphs are a little smaller in size and they take about one to two weeks to mature into adult lice.

3. Scratching:

When a louse bites, it causes itching and scratching. This occurs due to some reaction to the louse’s saliva. The children may complain of things moving on their heads or a tickling sensation on their scalps.

4. Bumps and sores:

Scratching the itchy scalp causes bumps and sores. The scratching differs from one child to another. If the skin is scratched excessively, it leads to infection of the scalp. There may be swelling of the lymph glands and children may have red tender skin that crusts and oozes.

Who Gets Head Lice?

As has already been mentioned, head is the most common place of lice infestation. It most commonly affects children in age group of 3 to 10 years in their preschool years, elementary school years and day care centers. It impacts people belonging to all socioeconomic statuses. The ratio amongst girls is higher but this should lead one to think that longer hair or hair hygiene has anything to do with hair lice. Head lice rarely bother the Afro Americans.

How Does Head Lice Spread?

Head lice are very contagious and they can very easily spread from one person to another. The spread is even easier in group settings like schools, childcare centers, in slumber parties, during sports activities and during camps.

Although they have no wings, these little beings have specially designed claws that enable them to stick to and climb hair. Head to head contact is the main mode of their spread. However, sharing stuff like clothes, bed linens and hair brushes can lead to transference of lice to an uninfected person. Kids are obviously more likely to have lice because they tend to have more contact with each other and they don’t mind sharing stuff with friends either.

Pets normally are not vectors from transferring lice. Neither can they spread them to you nor can they catch lice from you.

How Common Are Head Lice?

Having head lice is a very common problem. Luckily enough there is no danger attached to having them. As already mentioned, according to Center of Disease Control, an estimated 6 to 12 million people in America get infested by head lice annually. Kids, preferably girls are more prone to having head lice.

Head Lice At School:

Head lice being a common problem has been a cause of worry for school staff for some time. As they are contagious and quite easily spread, some schools took steps to avoid the spread of the lice amongst children. Head lice can be a nuisance but children who are found to have them shouldn’t be sent home early. They can go home at the appropriate time but return to school after they have received the appropriate treatment for lice.

Since they don’t spread any worrisome disease, the no nit policy that was previously employed by some schools has been abandoned. The American Association of Pediatrics and The National association of School nurses have endorsed this decision as well. So we need to discourage the children at school. They can go home and come back after they have received the appropriate treatment.

Life Cycle Of Head Lice:

Head Lice scientifically known has Pediculus Humanus Capitis belongs to the order Psocodae. It is an ectoparasite. It has three life stages.

Life Cycle Of Head Lice


The eggs also called nits are very hard to see and very often confused with dandruff. The eggs are laid by the adult female quite close to the scalp at the base of the hair shaft. The eggs take about 6 to 9 days to hatch.


The egg hatches into a nymph. It looks like an adult louse but is very small in size. They mature into adults 7 days after they hatch.


The adult louse is fully developed. It is about the size of a sesame seed. Females are larger in size than males and in a day can lay up to 8 nits. They can live on the scalp for as long as 30 days and need several feeds a day. Without feeding, they’d die in a couple of days.

How Can We Spot Head Lice?

Head lice and their tiny eggs are very small and quite hard to spot. First you have to do a visual inspection. If that does not help you, try wet combing. It normally identifies active infestations in 90% of cases. Visual inspections in contrast, can only enable you to visualize lice in 29% of cases.
You need really good light and a magnifying glass to visualize these creatures.

  • Look for the signs and symptoms of head lice.
  • Check the child’s scalp. You need to separate the hair in various places and then check the scalp at various places. Try to look for any movement in the hair. It is definitely the sign of active infestation. Look for lice eggs.
  • If the first two steps are not helpful enough, wet the child’s hair and comb the hair out in sections. If there are lice on your child’s scalp they will easily be visualized on the comb.

Causes Of Head Lice:

Head lice are very contagious. One gets infected with lice when the lice crawl on to one’s head. Following are a few ways/causes you might get head lice.

  • Head lice can be transferred when you touch your head with an infected person’s head.
  • If you use personal items of a person with head lice, you can get infected.
  • Using a fabric item from an infected person is also a cause.

How To Get Rid Of Head Lice?

If your kid is two years of age or less, you should prefer medical treatment for lice on him.  You have to remove the nits and lice with your hands.

In order to remove the lice and nits by hands, you have to comb your child’s wet and conditioned hair with a fine toothed comb. You have to do it every 2 to 4 days for a period of 2 weeks after the last live lice has been seen. Wetting the hair has the role of temporarily immobilizing the lice and with conditioning it gets really easy to comb through the hair.

Wet combing also serves as an alternative to the use of pesticides in older children as well. Sometimes people try to suffocate the lice by the use of petroleum jelly, mayonnaise and olive oil, these treatments don’t seem really effective.
So in order to get rid of lice, you have to hand pick them as they won’t survive long after they have been taken off the scalp.

Test And Exams To Find Head Lice:

As per the American Academy of Pediatrics, the gold standard test for the diagnosis of head lice is the visualization of a live nymph or an adult louse.

According to the guidelines the doctor should carefully comb through your wet conditioned hair with a fine toothed comb. If he doesn’t find any live lice or nits, he will repeat the whole exam for the second time.

Symptoms Of Head Lice:

There are certain ways to look into the presence of head lice. Symptoms and signs through which we can find lice, nits and eggs are:

  1. Creepy crawlies make some weird sensation in head. It makes you believe that something is actually walking on your head. We can refer this sensational moving of tiny insects as tickling effect.
  1. There are certain kind of bumps found in the head. Upon looking it with bare eyes or microscope for a better vision: we find redness, swollen skin which at times has marks caused by scratching.
  1. Prickliness and irritability is another significant sign through which we can assume that the head has lice in it.
  1. Sometimes, hair lice are more like small white particles.

Treatment Of Head Lice:

The treatment options include a medicated shampoo, cream rinse or a lotion to kill the lice. These serve as over the counter medications and depend upon what treatments you already have tried. Medicated lice treatments work by killing the lice but there is a strong likelihood that they may be ineffective. It will take a few days for the itch to go away.

If the lice are highly resistant, an oral medication may also be prescribed by the doctor. It is extremely important that exact instructions on the medications be followed as these medications are basically insecticides.  You have to use the medications correctly or it will go ineffective. Incorrect use may make the lice resistant. After medical treatment, the doctors normally advise hair combing to remove nits or any remaining live lice. You may repeat the treatment 7 to 10 days later again so that there remains no chance of reinfestation.

If the child is young, removal by hand is the best way to go.

Preventing The Reinfestation Of Head Lice:

  1. Wash with hot water and thoroughly dry all the bed linen and clothes in use by a person with a lice infestation. Dry them out in the dryer for at least 20 minutes.
  2. If there is something that cannot be washed, dry clean it or put it in air tight bags for 2 to 3 days.
  3. Carefully vacuum all the fomites and any upholstered furniture. Throw that vacuum bag away.
  4. Soak all your hair care items like hair combs, brushes and bands in alcohol and rub them thoroughly. You can also through them away in case you absolutely want to get rid of lice once and for all.

Home Remedies For Head Lice:

Becoming panicky and losing temper on children with lice is not a solution to overcome or get rid of lice. There are ways to handle this most irritable and annoying insect. Let’s read some of the home remedies through which lice are cleaned for good.

  • Use of lice comb at least thrice in twenty-four hours comes as a rescuer to eliminate hair lice.
  • One of the quickest and easiest procedure to get rid of hair lice is to apply anti-lice shampoo. What these specially formulated shampoos do is to kill lice and nits instantly. During the process in which you have to leave shampoo in hair for minimum ten minutes is somewhat crucial. It is difficult for letting kids wear shampoo when lice continuously bite on scalp. Later, when the shampoo is washed, hair is usually all free of lice. If not, the process can be repeated twice in the week.
  • Garlic, one of the herbs with very strong smell can actually be used to kill lice. Grinding or mashing garlic and applying it on hair can be the source of elimination of lice forever.
  • Baby oil, vinegar (preferably white) and laundry cleaner is said to smother lice. Its paste should be applied on to the scalp and washing it out after 15 minutes will be one of the easiest way to get rid of lice.

Along with these home remedies there are other ways too which are not only easy, convenient and manageable but also less messy and light on pocket.

Tips To Remember:

The following tips will help the children against getting lice.

  1. Tell your kids to avoid any head to head contact at school and at home when they are with other children.
  2. Instruct your kids to avoid sharing any combs, bands, bandannas and any such personal use items that may transfer the lice to their hair.
  3. Advise the kids to avoid laying on the bedding’s, line and carpet that have recently been under the influence of an infected person.
  4. Examine your members of the family every 2 to 4 days who have been in contact with people with lice infestation. Treat anyone who is found have lice infestation close to their scalp.