What are lice?
You feel a tiny tickle, an itchy bump. Could it be lice? The very thought can make you itch! Head lice, pubic lice (“crabs”), and body lice are parasites no one wants to be invaded by. These creepy crawlers are as old as humankind, and they are not nitpicky about who they pick on. There are three kinds of lice that feed on human blood. Each are identified by the area of the body they infest: head lice, pubic lice, and body lice. Head and pubic lice use skin and hair as their nesting grounds, while body lice live in fabrics. Lice don’t jump or fly — they crawl. Additionally, human lice don’t live on other animals.
From nit to adult
Lice have three life stages: nit (egg), nymph (baby lice) and adult. Nits take anywhere from five to 10 days to hatch into nymphs, depending on temperature. The warmer the temperature the faster they hatch. Nymphs grow for about a week before they are ready to lay nits. Adults can live as long as 30 days if they have access to human blood. Adult head and pubic lice die after 48 to 72 hours with no blood, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out that body lice can live for a week off a human.
Adult lice are about the size of a tiny sesame seed. Head and body lice have a segmented body and six legs. Pubic lice have six legs, too, but are shaped like tiny sea crabs. Lice are tan or brown-gray in color.
Nits are tiny, light-colored deposits attached to hair for head and pubic lice, and to fabric for body lice. Nits are firmly attached to hair or clothing by the female louse through a glue like substance. The eggs won’t move when nudged with a finger but can be removed using a special fine-toothed comb.
Is it head lice?
Head lice thrive anywhere from your eyebrows to the nape of your neck. You get them from close contact with someone who already has them. You can also get them from exposure to an object that was recently in contact with an infested person’s head, such as a hairbrush or a pillow. In the United States, head lice spread most rapidly in school-age children. Most schools have a policy requiring students with head lice to stay home until the problem is eliminated.
Itching from lice is a result of its saliva when feeding. If you find a cluster of itchy spots on your head, it could be head lice. They bite anywhere they are feeding on the head, but they are particularly fond of the back of the head and the area behind the ears because this is a warmer area of the scalp. The bites often appear as small reddish or pink bumps, sometimes with crusted blood. When scratched excessively, the bites can become infected.
Is it pubic lice?
Pubic lice, or crabs, infest the wiry hair around your genitals, and sometimes the underarm area, chest hair, and eyebrows as well. They are typically spread through sexual contact, so they’re most common in sexually active teenagers and adults. There is a chance that they can appear in children, however. According to the CDC, the presence of pubic lice in eyelashes or eyebrows in children can be a sign of sexual abuse.
Itchy spots or intense itching in the hair-covered area around the genitals could indicate pubic lice. Look for small reddish or pink bumps on the skin. When scratched, the bites can become infected. If you are diagnosed with pubic lice, ask your doctor to check you for other types of sexually transmitted infections.
Is it body lice?
Body lice feed just about anywhere other than the head or genitals, but they live and lay their eggs in clothes and bedding. Body lice are most often found in the homes of people who use the same clothes or bedding for a long time without laundering them. They are spread by contact with the fabrics they infest.
Getting rid of lice
Head and pubic lice
It goes without saying that head and pubic lice are highly unpleasant. Even though they don’t carry disease, you’ll want to get rid of them. There are over-the-counter and prescription treatments containing chemicals that kill head and pubic lice, but you won’t be lice-free until all nits are combed out. Combing can be done before and after using medication. You’ll also need to thoroughly wash all clothes and bedding in hot water (over 130 degrees) that may have lice on them and use a hot dryer cycle. The CDC recommends that things that cannot be washed should be sealed in plastic bags for two weeks.
Body lice tend to be rare outside of particularly unsanitary living conditions. However, if you think you’ve been exposed, look for clusters of tiny dots that start out red and can expand with an outer pink ring. Prolonged body lice infestations can turn the surrounding skin thicker and darker due to the ongoing inflammation. According to the CDC, body lice can spread dangerous illnesses, including typhus, trench fever, and epidemic relapsing fever. Good personal hygiene, healthy living conditions, and the washing of clothes will help eliminate the risk of body lice and their infections.
The idea of something crawling on your body and feeding on your blood is unsettling. But unless you’ve been exposed to body lice, which can carry diseases, the majority of lice infestations are mostly an inconvenience. Once you’ve identified what kind of lice you have, you can eliminate the problem with careful treatment. Call your healthcare provider if you suspect you or your children have any form of lice.