What are lice?
Lice are tiny insects called parasites that spread by personal contact, as well as by sharing belongings. Children are particularly likely to catch and spread lice.
Learn how to identify symptoms that indicate you or your child may have lice.
Types of lice
There are three main types of lice. They all come from the same parasite family, but they’re each a different species:
- You can find head lice on the scalp, neck, and ears.
- Body lice start out on clothing or in beds, but they move from those locations to people’s skin.
- Pubic lice are also called “crabs.” You can find them on pubic hair and skin.
The most common symptom of any type of lice is itching. Lice bites cause an allergic reaction that causes this itchy feeling. However, you may not feel itchy right away, especially if it’s a light infestation. You may not notice any symptoms for up to six weeks the first time you get lice.
In addition to intense itching, lice can cause other symptoms, such as:
- a tickling feeling of something moving on your head, hair, or body
- sores that develop from scratching itches
- difficulty sleeping
- red bumps on your head, neck, shoulders, or pubic area
- the appearance of lice eggs, or small white objects in your hair
Lice eggs are also called “nits.” They appear on hair shafts and are difficult to brush out of the hair.
How to check for lice
Head lice can cause an itchy scalp, but so can other skin conditions, such as dandruff, eczema, or even allergies to shampoo and other hair products. Therefore, it’s important to know how to check for lice, especially on children.
First, wet your child’s hair. This slows the lice down and makes them easier to spot. Use a fine-toothed comb to part your child’s hair, then shine a bright light onto their scalp.
If your child has lice, you’ll notice small, brown insects the size of sesame seeds moving around or nits that look like they’re cemented on to individual hairs.
You may be unsure if you see dirt or lice and nits. Lice and nits are often difficult to comb out, while you can easily remove dirt.
Lice prevention at home
Head lice are contagious. You should take precautions to avoid catching or sharing them. Don’t share personal belongings such as hairbrushes, hairclips, combs, and hats. Launder clothes and sheets regularly.
If you think you may have a lice infestation at home, vacuum the floor and furniture, and then cover furniture for two weeks with a plastic drop cloth.
Lice prevention at school
It’s difficult to prevent the spread of lice in school or childcare settings. You can ask your child to avoid head-to-head contact with other kids during playtime. Avoiding shared spaces for clothing and hats, such as closets and lockers, may also help prevent the spread of lice.
However, even with good hygiene practices, your child may still develop lice. If so, the best way to treat symptoms is through medications that your doctor can prescribe or recommend.
Treating head lice
You can treat lice with some over-the-counter (OTC) products, as well as prescription medications. You can purchase OTC shampoos that contain ingredients that treat lice, such as pyrethrin or permethrin.
Medications that your doctor may prescribe include:
- malathion, which you rub into your hair and scalp before rinsing off
- benzyl alcohol lotion, which is a lotion that you apply to your hair and scalp for 10 minutes before rinsing off
- lindane shampoo
Make sure you read the labels of all prescription medications and follow the directions.
Seeing your doctor
If you’re uncertain whether you or a family member has lice, see your doctor. Your doctor can use a special light called a Wood’s light to make the nits more visible. They can identify whether or not you have lice.
If you do have lice, it’s possible to use home treatments to get rid of lice and avoid further symptoms. Wash contaminated clothing, sheets, and towels, and use over-the-counter treatments as needed.