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Battle of the Bugs! What you Need to Know About Head Lice

By HERWriter
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Head Lice related image Photo: Getty Images

This article is going to be just as charming as the one I wrote on scabies. Just the word “lice” is enough to make many people shiver. The concept of bugs crawling on us is more than some of us can dare to imagine.

Unfortunately, though between 6 and 12 million cases of head lice are estimated to occur each year in the United States in children 3 to 11 years of age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Getting to Know the Bugs

There are actually three kinds of lice: head lice, body lice and pubic lice. Head lice are about 2 to 3 mm long and can infest the head, eyebrows and eyelashes. Body lice are 2.3 to 3.6 mm long and live and lay eggs on clothing. Pubic or “crab” lice are 1.1 to 1.8 mm long and are typically found attached to hair in the pubic area but can also be found on coarse hair such as eyebrows, beards/mustaches and armpits.


Lice start off as eggs or nits, which are oval-shaped, and are usually laid at the base of the hair shaft near the scalp. They are about the size of a knot in thread and can be yellow or white. They usually hatch eight to nine days after being laid.

Once lice (louse is a single parasite) have hatched, they are called “nymphs.” Nymphs take nine to 12 days to mature and will be about the size of a sesame seed and tan, grayish-white in color.

Adult head lice can live about 30 days on a person’s head but will die within one to two days if it falls off the person. Adult female lice are actually bigger than male lice and can lay up to six eggs per day.

Lice of any kind are spread by close person-to-person contact or sharing of clothing, hair articles or bedding. Contrary to public opinion, lice can only crawl. They do not fly or jump, and dogs, cats or other pets do not spread human lice, which only feed on human blood.

Where Did the Bugs Come From

Cases of head lice are most commonly reported among children in child care and elementary school and is less common among African-American children.

Some of the signs of lice infestation include:

• A tickling feeling of something moving in the hair
• Itching (due to allergic reaction to bites)
• Difficulty sleeping and irritability (head lice are nocturnal)
• Sores on the head because of scratching

Treating the Infestation

When there is a lice infestation, it is recommended that all household members and other people who have been in close contact with the infected person be treated.

Treatment involves use of an over-the-counter or prescription medication that contains a “pediculicide.” Pediculicides do not completely remove all eggs so retreatment is often recommended “after all eggs have hatched but before new eggs are produced” (CDC).

“[H]ats, scarves, pillow cases, bedding, clothing, and towels worn or used by the infested person in the 2-day period just before treatment is started can be machine washed and dried using the hot water and hot air cycles because lice and eggs are killed by exposure for 5 minutes to temperatures greater than 53.5 C (128.3 F). Items that cannot be laundered may be dry-cleaned or sealed in a plastic bag for two weeks. Items such as hats, grooming aids, and towels that come in contact with the hair of an infested person should not be shared. Vacuuming furniture and floors can remove an infested person’s hairs that might have viable nits attached.” (CDC)

If your child is under the age of two, you should not use medicated lice treatments. Nits and lice need to be removed by hand using a fine-tooth comb such as the LiceMeister comb. (see Headlice.org) This needs to be done every three to four days for two weeks after the last live louse is seen. Wet the hair beforehand to temporarily immobilize the lice and use conditioner to make the hair easy to comb through.

Contrary to popular opinion, having head lice does not mean that a person is dirty. Head lice affect children of all ages regardless of whether or not they bathe regularly.

For more information, check out this handy Head Lice information sheet from Kidshealth.org:



Lice. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web. Oct 13, 2011. http://www.cdc.gov/parasites/lice/ and

Head Lice. KidsHealth.org. Web. Oct 13, 2011. http://kidshealth.org/parent/infections/common/head_lice.html

FAQ. Headlice.org. Web. Oct 13, 2011. http://www.headlice.org/faq/questions.htm

“Report: Head Lice is no Reason to Keep Kids Out of School” by Alice Park TIMEScience (Monday, July 26, 2010) Web. Oct 13, 2011 http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2006397,00.html)

Reviewed October 14, 2011
by Michele Blackberg RN
Edited by Malu Banuelos

Add a Comment2 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

you should really check out the Lousebuster treatment. lousebuster dot com and do a story on that. it's amazing. no pesticides. it's green, and just a half hour treatment. school nurses are using them.

October 17, 2011 - 12:07pm
HERWriter (reply to Anonymous)

Probably won't do a story specifically on that product, but certainly it's worth passing the link along.

Thank you for your input.

October 17, 2011 - 1:16pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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