Head Lice

  • Getting head lice is not as bad as you may think. It is not a sign of uncleanliness, or poor health habits. It is not limited to the poor, or to certain racial or ethnic groups. Head lice can occur at any age, and for either sex. It doesn't just affect "other people"...it could happen to you or your family. So it's wise to learn how to recognize head lice infestation, how to treat it, and how to prevent it from coming back.

    Signs and Symptoms

    • Intense itching;
    • Lice on the scalp and clothing;
    • Nits on hair shafts.

    General Information

    What are head lice? These tiny insects live in human hair. They hatch from small eggs, called nits, which are attached to the base of individual hairs. The eggs hatch in about 10 days, with the new lice reaching maturity in about two weeks. The female louse can live for 20 to 30 days, and can lay as many as six eggs a day. Since lice multiply fast, they should be treated promptly.

    How does someone get head lice? Head lice can be transmitted in a number of ways besides direct physical contact. Borrowing a comb or brush from a person who has lice will do it--so can borrowing hats, ribbons, scarves or other head coverings. Sharing towels or pillowcases can also spread head lice. Even a stray hair that has nits can transmit head lice.

    What signs should I look for? Persistent itching of the head and back of the neck can indicate head lice. You should also look for infected scratch marks or a rash on the scalp. Most important of all, look for nits attached to individual hairs. These can be seen with the naked eye, but you can probably identify them more easily with the aid of a magnifying glass under strong illumination.

    Sometimes, small white specks in the hair such as dandruff or droplets of hair spray can be confused with nits. Try removing the specks from the hair shaft. Dandruff or hair spray will come off easily - nits are very difficult to remove. Check with a health professional if you are not sure whether head lice are present.


    Treating head lice: the sooner, the better. Once head lice are found, the problem should be taken care of promptly in order to prevent it from spreading to others. Fortunately, the head does not need to be shaved in order to bring the problem under control. Several effective over-the-counter preparations are available at pharmacies to treat head lice. Ask the pharmacist and read the labels for instructions.

    Your house should be "treated," too. Even after all lice are removed from the hair and scalp, the danger of reinfestation may still exist because lice can survive in the environment for up to four days. Also, nits can lie dormant for several weeks, then hatch to reinfest members of your family. All articles that may harbor lice or nits, such as clothes, towels and bed linens, should be washed in hot water and detergent and machine dried, or dry-cleaned. Disinfect combs and brushes by soaking them in a bleach solution and washing them in hot, soapy water; inspect for signs of lice or nits. For items that cannot be washed or dry-cleaned, vacuum as much as possible, especially upholstery, carpets, mattresses and other areas of the house or car where lice and their eggs may have been deposited. Wrap the vacuum bag and contents in a plastic bag and discard.

    Should other family members or roommates be checked for head lice? Yes. If one member of a residence has head lice, all members should be inspected periodically for two weeks. If lice or nits are found, they should be treated promptly.

    How can I help prevent head lice in the future? You should avoid borrowing personal items - combs, brushes, hats, towels or clothing - from each other or from friends. It is best for everyone to use only his or her own personal articles, both at home and while away.