White or clear nits mean lice have hatched from their eggs. Brown nits may mean the lice are ready to hatch, but they may also be dead, depending on how far away from the scalp they are.

Head lice are tiny parasitic insects about the sizes of sesame seeds. They live in human hair and feed from the scalp.

Female lice lay up to 10 eggs per day. These eggs and their empty casings are called nits. Depending on your hair color and the hatching cycle, nits can appear clear, white, tan, or dark brown.

Nits usually get stuck firmly on the hair shaft quite close to the scalp. They’re tiny, about the sizes of knots in pieces of thread. People may confuse them easily with dandruff, hair product droplets, dirt, or sand. But unlike other debris, nits get stuck firmly on the hair shaft like head lice do and aren’t easy to pick out.

If you or your child receive a diagnosis of head lice, know that the infestation is common and treatable. Lice don’t spread very easily or transmit other illnesses. A doctor may recommend treatment with a two-step lotion or shampoo and a combing routine to kill lice and remove nits.

Empty egg casings left behind after lice hatch appear white or clear, especially against dark hair.

You can find these hatched nits during or after an active head lice infestation.

If you or your child find only white or clear nits on the hair after a thorough check (no active lice or brown nits), your head lice infestation may have resolved. This is most likely if you’ve completed treatment and the nits are more than 1 centimeter (cm) from the scalp surface.

Left alone, hatched nits can remain firmly attached to the hair shaft for months, but they’re harmless and can’t cause lice reinfestation.

Unhatched head lice eggs appear yellow, tan, or dark brown. The larvae inside can be living or dead.

You can find these nits during or after an active head lice infestation.

If you find brown nits, carefully check the rest of the scalp, especially the hair behind the ears and at the back of the neck. Look for live lice and any nits within 1 cm of the scalp surface. Use a bright light, a fine-tooth nit comb, and the wet comb-out method.

Are nits dead if they’re brown?

Not necessarily. The larvae inside these unhatched eggs can be living or dead.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), nits more than 1 cm from the scalp are usually dead.

But when nits are closer to the scalp, it’s impossible to determine whether the lice could still hatch.

The AAP generally recommends treatment when nits are within 1 cm of the scalp.

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Nits stick to the hair shaft. Hatched casings and dead nits can stay on the hair shaft for months, even after curing the lice infestation, unless you remove them manually.

Because of this, finding nits alone doesn’t always mean there’s an active lice infestation. In a study from 2001, researchers carefully examined a group of school-aged children who had nits alone and found only 18% developed active head lice.

For this reason, the AAP doesn’t recommend “no-nit” school exclusion policies.

Medicated shampoos and creams can effectively kill lice but generally won’t kill all nits with a single application. A doctor may recommend repeat treatment 7–10 days after an initial treatment to kill live nits and lice that have recently hatched.

After treatment, the AAP recommends manually removing dead nits from the hair. You can do this by wetting the hair with water and using a fine-tooth nit comb to carefully comb through each section from the scalp to the ends. The American Academy of Dermatology Association recommends repeating this combing daily for 2 weeks after treatment.

The AAP doesn’t usually recommend chemical nit-loosening solutions. Some may cause irritation or interfere with the action of medicated lice shampoos and treatments.

Shaving your head can also remove lice and nits, but it isn’t necessary.

Why do I have white nits but no lice?

First, check that you truly have nits. Unlike other white or clear residues from dandruff or hair care products, nits stick firmly to the hair shaft and don’t easily come off.

You can find white nits on the hair shaft for months after lice treatment. These empty egg casings could be from a previous infestation, especially if you’ve had treatment and the nits are more than 1 cm from the scalp.

But if you find white nits very close to the scalp, examine the scalp for other signs of lice infestation.

Can I have brown nits but no lice?

Yes, finding brown nits but no active lice could mean either an active or recent lice infestation.

Diagnosing head lice requires finding at least one active louse. But lice can crawl fast to avoid light, and there are typically fewer than 10 on the scalp at any given time. So, it can be much easier to spot nits than live lice!

If you see brown nits, check the scalp carefully. If you still don’t find lice but see brown nits within 1 cm of the scalp, they may be live eggs. Consult a doctor about treatment and wet combing for nit removal.

If you have no symptoms, no active lice, and the nits are all farther than 1 cm from the scalp, they’re probably from a previous infestation and may not need treatment. You can remove nits with wet combing and continue to watch closely for any new signs of infestation.

Will hatched or dead nits fall out?

Nits stick firmly to the hair shaft and don’t easily fall out on their own.

White or clear-colored nits are usually eggs that have hatched.

Brown nits are unhatched eggs. The lice inside may be alive or dead — you can’t tell for sure based on color alone. But the farther nits are from the scalp, the less likely they may be viable. Nits more than 1 cm away from the scalp are most likely dead.

Because dead and hatched nits stick to the hair for a long time, finding nits alone doesn’t necessarily mean there’s an active lice infestation. Talk with a doctor to discuss your findings and any recent symptoms or exposures.