Head lice are extremely common, especially in children, but anyone can get them. Getting lice doesn’t mean anything about your personal hygiene or living circumstances, and you have plenty of options for treating infestations fast.

Head lice are tiny, parasitic insects that cling to hair follicles and feed on human blood from your scalp. Head lice don’t spread disease, but they can cause unpleasant scalp itching and irritation. They’re usually transmitted through head-to-head contact with others, and they can spread rapidly.

In the United States, an estimated 6 to 12 million children between the ages of 3 and 11 get lice each year. According to a 2022 review of studies, global estimates suggest about 19% of school-aged children have head lice.

Head lice are found in every country and across cultures and socioeconomic classes. In short, lice are nothing to feel embarrassed about. If you have head lice, that just means you or your child had close contact with someone else who had head lice.

Read on to learn more about head lice, including common myths, how to treat them, and how to prevent an infestation.

Kids in preschool and elementary school, along with their household members, tend to get lice most often. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), girls tend to get head lice more often, and this may happen because girls are more likely to play with their heads close together.

That said, you can still head lice regardless of your age, hair length, or other factors. It doesn’t matter whether your hair is washed or unwashed, long or short, or curly or straight.

Head lice feed on the blood from your scalp, so they’ll latch onto anyone. Technically, you can get lice even if you have no hair at all, but since lice cling to hair follicles and lay eggs (also known as nits) there, they likely won’t last too long if you have no hair.

Typically, lice need very close contact to move from one person to another. The head of someone with lice needs to touch, or nearly touch, another person’s head for long enough for the lice to crawl over.

It’s possible to transmit lice by sharing hairbrushes, hats, or other clothing or accessories that touch your head, but experts say this is less common.

You may have come across some of these common myths about head lice:

Only people with poor hygiene get lice.Since lice feed on blood in the scalp, they’ll target anyone with any hair type. It doesn’t matter how often you wash your hair.
Lice cling to washed hair more easily.Lice don’t seem to prefer washed hair, either. They’ll exist in any type of hair.
Your pet can give you lice.Head lice feed on human blood, so only humans can get them. Your pet can’t transmit lice to you or vice versa.
Black people don’t get head lice.According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), African Americans can get head lice, though they seem to get them less frequently than people of other racial groups. Experts think that this relates to hair type — lice may have more difficulty grasping the hair shaft of curly or coiled hair.
Head lice can spread to your body or pubic area.Head lice are distinct from pubic lice and body lice. While head lice can affect your eyebrows or eyelashes, they can’t move to your pubic area or any other part of your body.

Here are a few strategies that may help you avoid getting head lice:

  • Avoid touching heads with others who have head lice. Encourage children who play closely together to sit at enough distance so that their heads don’t touch.
  • Avoid using pillows, headrests, or other fabric-based furniture items that touch other people’s hair.
  • Avoid sharing hairbrushes, scrunchies, hats, and other items of clothing or accessories that touch your head without disinfecting them first.
  • Disinfect items that may contain head lice:
    • Soak items in very hot water for 5 to 10 minutes. Make sure the water is at least 130°F (54°C).
    • Wash and dry items on high heat or get them dry-cleaned.
    • Seal items in a plastic bag for 2 weeks.
  • Vacuum your floor, especially carpeted areas, and all furniture and car seats, if someone in your family has head lice.

If you or your child has head lice, it’s important to treat the infestation right away.

You can treat head lice with over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription methods, including:

  • OTC treatments: You can find permethrin lotion or pyrethrins combined with piperonyl butoxide at your local drugstore or online. You can opt for store brands, generics, or name brands. Examples of brands include Nix, Rid, and Licefreee Spray.
  • Prescription treatments: If you still notice live lice after using an OTC treatment, it may help to try a stronger formula. A doctor can prescribe ivermectin lotion, spinosad topical suspension, benzoyl alcohol lotion, or malathion lotion to treat head lice.
  • Manual removal: You can use a fine-toothed lice comb to manually remove lice. An application of olive oil before combing will help the lice cling to the comb. You’ll need to repeat at least every 2 to 3 days until no lice or nits remain. Just know that some experts say this treatment may not be enough to completely get rid of head lice.

Most medicated methods will require a second treatment application about 7 to 9 days after the first one. This second treatment targets any newly hatched lice.

Learn more about treatments for head lice.

Getting head lice has nothing to do with your hygiene habits.

Lice are incredibly common worldwide, and these parasites affect millions of children in the United States each year. Anyone can get them regardless of age, hair washing frequency, hair type, or other factors.

If you have symptoms of head lice or notice lice or nits in your hair, it’s best to use a prescription or OTC treatment right away. A primary care doctor or another healthcare professional can offer more guidance on dealing with persistent infestations.