Most of the time, bugs on your scalp are head lice. But you may also find fleas, ants, or other insects on your head. Here’s what you can do to treat these parasites.
A head lice infestation is one of the most common reasons for an itching sensation on your scalp.
But it’s possible that other insects or scalp conditions could be to blame for the itchiness, including:
Here’s how to tell whether you have lice or another condition.
Bugs you may find on your scalp include:
These small parasites can be white, brown, or black. They don’t have wings and move by crawling. You’ll typically find them at the base of hair shafts, especially around your neck and ears.
You may also notice small, oval eggs (nits) on hair strands near your scalp. You can see lice with your naked eye, but they’re often easier to spot when you have wet hair. You can also use a magnifying glass to find them more easily.
Like lice, fleas are small and wingless parasites. Flea bites itch, and they may leave discolored welts, blisters, or bumps.
Fleas are brown or black, and you can see them with your naked eye. However, they move much more quickly than lice and other bugs, and they can hop and crawl. They usually don’t make their home in human hair — your pet’s hair is another story entirely.
Fleas also don’t lay eggs in human hair. If your pet has fleas, you may be more likely to have fleas on your body, but they often don’t survive for long. You can also kill fleas on your body by taking a hot shower with plenty of soap.
It’s uncommon for ants to infest your hair, but it’s still possible. Pheidole ants (barber ants) can cause a rare condition called ant-induced alopecia. To put it simply, they may eat your hair, causing patches of hair loss on your scalp.
These wingless ants are reddish or yellowish brown. You can see them with your naked eye, and they resemble other types of ants.
If you have ants in your hair, you may feel a crawling sensation on your scalp, but you won’t experience the intense itch that you would with lice and flea bites.
Consider contacting a doctor right away if you believe you have ants in your hair.
Bedbugs are small, flat, reddish brown bugs that you can see with your naked eye. They have wing pads, which resemble wings but aren’t fully functional.
They usually don’t hang out in your hair or on your scalp. They actually prefer furniture and mattresses.
If they do somehow end up in your hair, they won’t survive for long. They’re not equipped to attach to human hair, and they also don’t like light or heat.
If you suspect you have bedbugs in your hair, you can often wash them out in a hot shower.
Conditions that are not insect-related may cause scalp itching, including:
This scalp condition causes your skin to flake, and those white flakes may resemble head lice or nits at first glance.
Key differences between dandruff and lice include:
- Color: Dandruff is always white. Lice may be white, black, or brown. So, if you notice any darker spots on your scalp, you may have lice.
- Location and movement: Lice are small, moving bugs that live around the scalp. Their eggs cling to the hair follicles. Dandruff flakes, on the other hand, collect at the top of the scalp and will fall off strands of hair fairly easily.
- Sensation: Both conditions can cause itchiness. But with lice, you might also feel a crawling sensation.
Scalp psoriasis is a skin condition that may cause an itching sensation. But the similarities between lice and psoriasis stop there.
Hallucinations or medication side effects
If you feel like something is crawling on or beneath your skin, but there’s nothing there, you may be experiencing a tactile hallucination called formication.
If you can’t find any bugs or flakes on your scalp but continue to feel an itching sensation, consider reaching out to a doctor for more guidance.
If you think you may have bugs in your hair, these tips can help:
- Grab a flashlight and magnifying glass: Bright light and magnification can help you clarify whether you have lice, fleas, dandruff, or anything else on your scalp. Still not sure? A healthcare professional can help.
- Treat the condition: You can treat lice, fleas, and bedbugs at home. You can wash fleas and bedbugs out in the shower with hot soapy water. To kill head lice, you’ll need to pick up some medicated lice shampoo or spray from your local drugstore, or ask your doctor for a prescription treatment.
- Treat the environment: Whether you have lice, fleas, or bedbugs, killing the bugs in your environment can prevent reinfestation and help protect others from getting the bugs. To do this, thoroughly vacuum all rugs and furniture, wash and dry bedding and clothing in hot water, and disinfect any items you can’t wash by sealing them in a bag for
- Get professional support: If over-the-counter (OTC) medications, at-home remedies, and cleaning don’t get rid of the bugs, a doctor or another healthcare professional can offer more guidance on next steps.
If you do have lice, you can treat them with:
- OTC treatments: Examples include permethrin lotion or pyrethrins combined with piperonyl butoxide.
- Prescription treatments: A doctor can prescribe spinosad topical suspension (Natroba), ivermectin lotion, benzoyl alcohol lotion, or malathion lotion.
- Manual removal: You can use a lice comb, flea comb, or any fine-toothed comb to remove lice and nits. You’ll need to repeat this
at least every 3 daysuntil all the lice go away. For best results, combine this method with medication.
The type of insect you’re most likely to find in your hair is the head louse. But fleas, bedbugs, or ants may also temporarily live on your scalp.
It’s also possible to mistake a scalp condition, like dandruff or psoriasis, for lice. If you’re not sure why you have an itchy scalp, try taking a close look with a flashlight and magnifying glass. If you still can’t tell, a doctor can offer more guidance.