Head lice are small (less than 1/8 inch long) grayish-white, flat, wingless insects. Immature lice are
called nymphs. The female produces white oblong eggs, called nits, which attach strongly to
individual hair strands. Unlike dandruff, it cannot be easily brushed out. Dandruff, hair products, dirt
and debris can often be mistaken for nits. Lice cannot fly or jump. Research supports that most
children spread head lice in the home and in the community not in school. Lice are most often spread
through direct head to head contact. Children often have head to head contact with each other as part
of their play. This is why it is so common in this age group. The risk of getting lice from the carpet
or furniture is very small. Head lice survive less than 1-2 days if they fall off a person and the eggs
also called nits cannot hatch and usually die within a week if they are not kept at the same
temperature as that found close to the scalp.
People with head lice often experience itching of the scalp. The itching may not start until the person
has had lice for 4-6 weeks. There may also be red raised areas noted at the hair line on the neck and
behind the ears.
Lice are very small, move quickly, and avoid light. They may be hard to find. Use of a fine-toothed
louse comb and magnifying glass may make it easier to find lice. Using a louse comb to find a live
louse is the best way to identify an active case. The comb may be purchased at a local pharmacy
Nits (eggs) are often confused with other particles found in hair such as dandruff, hair spray droplets,
and dirt particles. Nits are “glued to the hair and do not move if you flick them. They have to be
pulled off the piece of hair. Identifying a case of head lice is best made by finding a live louse on
head of a person. Treatment should not be initiated unless there is a clear diagnosis of head lice. If
you are unsure you should check with the school nurse or your health care provider.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that there is between 6 and 12 million cases of head
lice per year in the United States among children age 3-11. Prevention is important. The following
are steps that can be taken to help prevent and control the spread of head lice:
- Avoid head-to-head (hair-to-hair) contact during play and other activities at home, school, and
elsewhere (sports activities, playground, slumber parties, and camp).
- Do not share clothing such as hats, scarves, coats, sports uniforms, hair ribbons, or barrettes.
- Do not share combs, brushes, or towels.
- Check your child’s head every 1-2 weeks for lice.
The following videos provide a demonstration for checking for lice and nits.
They will provide you with some guidelines on
what nits and lice look like. Use a fine toothed comb or a nit comb when checking. When using a nit
comb the hair should be wet to avoid pulling the hair which can be painful.