What You Need to Know about Head Lice

Contemplate these words for a moment: head lice. Bet your head is itching already. You can almost feel them crawling through your hair just at the very mention of them. Be strong. We’ll get through this post together, and it’s important that we get through this post. Because the fact of the matter is, these bothersome little bugs are likely to affect us all at one point or another. The more we know about them and the myths surrounding them, the more we can do to prevent their spread. So let’s go on an itchy journey together to learn about this little insect: the head louse.

What Is It?

We often say that people “have head lice,” as if it were a disease or condition. But in reality, a person who “has” head lice is actually playing host to an infestation of parasitic insects. It’s just like having a tick or chiggers, except a lot of them and only on your head.

So what do they look like?

Up close and magnified, the head louse looks like something out of a monster movie. But an adult head louse, at its biggest, is only about the size of a sesame seed.

Good news Adult lice are often only one-third of a lice infestation. Head lice come in three stages, all tiny and travel-sized for your convenience.

By far the most troublesome of these stages is the nit. Nits are louse eggs, which generally take about 8-9 days to hatch. Often confused with dandruff, scabs, hair product residue, and other scalp trash, these tiny oval-shaped eggs are usually yellow or white in color and only about the size of a tightly-tied knot in sewing thread. A nit can be very hard to see, especially when it is alive, because the material that makes up the shell of a nit can reflect the color around it, making it appear to be a color very close to that of the hair it is buried in.

Nits are always found very close to the base of a hair shaft. They will be very firmly attached to only one strand of hair, and live nits are always laid within a fourth of an inch from the scalp. Other hair debris such as dandruff will be easier to shift about in the hair than nits. If it is dislodged by fluffing or regular brushing and combing, it is not a live nit. In addition, nits cannot survive without the heat from the scalp to incubate them. So any nit found further away from the scalp is either a dead, hatched, or non-viable nit, or was never a nit to begin with.

Once a nit has hatched, the louse that was inside it officially becomes a nymph. “Nymph” is a beautiful word out of Greek mythology, which in this case, ironically represents the icky adolescent form of a louse. It is at this stage that the louse will begin to *Dracula voice* feed on human blood. A louse will remain a nymph for about 9-12 days before maturing into its adult form.

An adult louse is usually tan, reddish-brown, or grayish in color, but they can appear darker or lighter depending on the color of their host’s hair. Lice can live for up to 30 days on a person’s head, but if they are separated from a human host, they will die within two days. Female lice are generally larger than males and can lay around six eggs a day!

Signs & Symptoms

The one symptom ubiquitously associated with a head lice infestation – the one that has plagued us since we started creating this post – is itching, itching, itching. When lice feed off the blood in our heads, they release saliva under our skin, and our histamines generally don’t like that. It’s the same reaction that causes mosquito bites to swell and itch, but instead of one bite in one place, there are lots of bites all over the head, neck, and ears.

But not everybody itches. Especially if it’s a first-time infestation, it may be quite a while before itching starts, if it starts at all. That doesn’t mean you don’t feel those little boogers up there, though. Most people experience tickling and crawling sensations in the hair when a lice infestation is present (much like the sensations you’re probably feeling right now – don’t worry, those are phantom lice, creepy but nonexistent).

Those who do itch will probably scratch, too. This can cause sores and infected spots on the head, neck, and ears. People suffering from a head lice infestation may also have difficulty sleeping or be irritable at night. Head lice avoid light and are most active in the dark, so increased activity may cause increased tickling and itching during the bedtime hours.

Other physical signs to look for include nits at the base of the hair shafts, and of course, adult lice crawling around on someone’s head. Most often, nits and lice are easiest to spot around the ears, where the hairline meets the neck and forehead, or at the crown of the head.

It’s good to remember, especially when it comes to children’s heads, that an insect in the hair does not a lice infestation make! In the warm months, Tennessee is literally crawling with all kinds of small bugs, and your child’s sweaty head is often a nice place to pick up some salty energy. Remember that lice are usually grayish or translucent brown, and about the size of the seeds on a Big Mac bun. Make sure it’s really a louse before triggering the alarms!

On that note, if you suspect a head lice infestation may be present on your own head or the head of someone you love, always confirm the infestation with your physician or with professionals (like those at The Lice Place) before using over-the-counter treatments for lice.

How Is It Spread? Who Can Get It? You don’t have to worry about your pets when a head lice infestation hits your house! Head lice are especially adapted for humans. They have a single hook-like claw at the end of each of their six legs that is specifically designed for the size and texture of a human hair strand. They move about in the hair by crawling using this specialized foot-gear.

Contrary to popular belief, head lice cannot jump or fly. This is why most cases of head lice are spread by direct head-to-head contact. It is possible, though far less likely, for lice to spread via clothes, hats, bedsheets, and other such things.

In a school environment, direct and indirect spreading of lice are both very possible. In fact, the vast majority of known cases of lice infestations in the US are found in children attending preschool through middle school.

The presence and spread of head lice has nothing to do with the cleanliness of an environment or with a person’s hygiene. Head lice will cling to anything they can cling to – they are not picky!

Some textures of hair are harder for lice to grip, and those people are less likely to experience infestation, but the cleanliness of a person’s hair has nothing to do with whether or not they contract head lice. The same applies to an environment. The cleanest, most sanitary classroom in the world can still fall victim to infestations of head lice, and it wouldn’t slow down their spread in the least.

Head lice do not carry or spread bacterial or viral infectious diseases. Any complications experienced from head lice are normally due to other kinds of external infection which take hold when people scratch the skin on their heads, but are otherwise completely unrelated to the lice themselves. Lice are not considered a public health hazard. They’re just gross.

Prevention & Treatment

Any time a lice infestation is identified, it is important to visit your physician or a lice removal facility. These experts can identify and confirm an infestation, as well as recommending and/or performing treatments.

Once an infestation is confirmed, everyone in the infested person’s household should be checked for signs of lice. Any additional cases of lice need to be dealt with in a timely manner to prevent the spread and/or re-infestation of lice in the household.

The other thing to do once lice have been in your home is to start cleaning. Washing items in hot water is the best method of cleaning. Lice cannot survive heat greater than 130°F for more than five to ten minutes. Washing clothing and other fabrics in hot water will kill any surviving lice before they can spread, as will soaking combs and brushes in hot water for 5-10 minutes.

If there are items which would not weather a hot water rinse very well, the other option is to store items that may have been affected in a sealed plastic bag. Two weeks sealed away with no access to heat or human blood will ensure beyond any doubt that any lice are dead, dead, dead.

You may also wish to vacuum the floor and furniture where the infested person spends a lot of time. Although lice cannot survive long without a human host, and indirect transmission is somewhat unlikely, vacuuming will help to ensure that any surviving lice are neutralized.

Here at High Hopes, we have been fortunate thus far (knock on wood), and have not been severely affected by lice infestations. Inevitably, however, lice do pop up from time to time. Anytime lice are detected in the building, we have taken all of the measures listed above to ensure that we nip these infestations in the bud.

When you suspect an infestation, always consult a physician or lice removal expert before treating for lice, and follow the instructions and recommendations that they provide.

It is also very important to check with a physician or lice removal facility before allowing an affected child to return to school, to prevent the further spread of lice infestations.

Villainized and reviled, the little head louse has gained a towering reputation for disruption and mayhem. In reality, though they are a nuisance, head lice are not dangerous or threatening to anything other than a good night’s peaceful, non-itchy rest.

Nevertheless, if we remain vigilant and proactive, we can keep lice from gaining a foothold in our schools and communities. Here’s hoping that with these tips and facts, lice won’t bug us too much anymore.

Stop scratching your head!


[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Head Lice: Frequently Asked Questions. 1 September 2015. Web. 16 February 2018. <https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/lice/head/gen_info/faqs.html>. [2] Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Head Lice - Symptoms and Causes. 2018. Web. 16 February 2018. <https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/head-lice/symptoms-causes/syc-20356180>.

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