Lice vs. Dandruff: What’s the Difference?

Written by Erica Roth | Published on May 3, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George T. Krucik, MD, MBA on May 3, 2013

Intro

Lice and dandruff are two common conditions that affect the scalp. While they share some similarities, lice and dandruff are two different conditions that require different treatments.

Head lice are contagious parasites, while dandruff is a self-contained scalp condition. You can’t catch dandruff from anyone else, although it tends to run in families. Knowing the differences between lice and dandruff can help you treat your scalp condition properly.

Appearance

“lice”

Head lice and dandruff are both indicated by tiny white particles in the hair and scalp, and can be mistaken for one another at a quick glance. Upon closer inspection, the differences are easier to see.

Dandruff, also called seborrheic dermatitis, is the flaking of your scalp skin. Dandruff scales can appear dry or oily, white or yellow-ish in color.

Head lice exist in three forms:

  • eggs, also called “nits:” tiny white specks
  • nymphs, or young adults: small, tan-colored insects hatched from nits
  • adult lice: still extremely small, about the size of a sesame seed

Causes

The causes of dandruff and lice couldn’t be more different. Lice are parasitic insects that crawl and spread to others through close contact. Lice can crawl onto clothing, bedding, towels, and personal items like combs and hair accessories.

Dandruff is a non-contagious inflammatory skin condition. Buildup of shampoo on the scalp, excessively dry or oily skin, and autoimmune conditions like psoriasis are common causes of dandruff. Dandruff can be genetic, but you can’t “catch” it from your parents or siblings. It just means that members of the same family are more likely to have dandruff. On the other hand, it’s very easy to get head lice from a family member who already has them.

Populations Affected

Head lice affect up to 12 million children every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Preschoolers and elementary school-aged children are the most widespread population to get lice. This statistic does not take into account adult sufferers of head lice. Other family members of infected children often contract lice too.

Dandruff typically affects people who are older than the preschool set. Dandruff is most prevalent in adolescents and young adults, but older adults and small children can also experience a flaky scalp.

Symptoms

Head lice and dandruff can cause symptoms in some people, while others don’t feel a thing. Itching is the most common symptom associated with both conditions. Lice feed on human blood and stay close to the scalp. The insects’ saliva is irritating, causing you to itch. You might also feel the sensation that something is moving around in your hair.

Dandruff can itch if your scalp is very dry. The most visible sign of both lice and dandruff is the presence of white specks in your hair. Dandruff is easy to comb out. Lice eggs or nits attach themselves firmly on your hair shaft and are more difficult to remove.

Shampoos

Treatment for head lice and dandruff include the use of medicated shampoos. Shampoos containing permethrin and pyrethrin kill lice and nits and are recommended for children and adults over two years old. You may have to wash your hair with the medicated shampoo again after seven to 10 days to ensure that all the lice are dead.

You can also manage dandruff with special shampoos designed to slow the skin-shedding process or treat fungal infections that might lead to skin flaking. Look for shampoos with coal tar, salicylic acid, ketoconazole, or selenium sulfide. Use dandruff shampoos every day to control severe flaking or weekly to manage minor symptoms.

Home Remedies

Non-medical home remedies can be used in addition to medicated shampoos to help manage dandruff and prevent head lice from taking over your home. For dandruff, the homespun “go-to” treatment is sunshine and a healthy diet rich in vitamin B and zinc, according to the Mayo Clinic.

A lice infestation requires a little more work around the house to make sure that all of the tiny insects and their eggs are terminated. Wash clothing, towels, and bedding in very hot water and dry them on a high-heat setting. Vacuum upholstered furniture and carpeting and bag up stuffed animals and other unwashable toys for at least three days. Any remaining lice will die without food.

Prevention

Dandruff can be tough to prevent if you’re genetically predisposed to the condition. However, there are several ways to reduce episodes of flaky skin. Manage your stress, subscribe to a healthy diet, and cut back on the amount of hair styling products you use. Following a balanced diet and striving for a low-stress life is a healthy practice regardless of dandruff.

To prevent a head lice infestation, keep hairbrushes, combs, hats, scarves, pillows, and other personal items to yourself. Reducing contact like this will make it difficult for the parasites to take up residence in your hair.

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