Syracuse UniversityHealth Services

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Head Lice

WHAT IS IT

Head lice are very small insects about the size of a sesame seed (2-3 mm long).  Their bodies are usually pale and grey but color can vary.  Head lice feed on tiny amounts of blood from the scalp.  They usually survive less than a day if they are not on a person’s scalp.  Lice lay and attach their eggs in hair close to the scalp.

SYMPTOMS

  • Itching. Itching on the scalp, neck and ears is the most common symptom. This is an allergic reaction to louse saliva. When a person has an infestation for the first time, itching may not occur for two to six weeks after infestation.
  • Lice on scalp. Lice may be visible but are tough to spot because they're small, avoid light and move quickly.
  • Lice eggs (nits) on hair shafts. Nits stick to hair shafts. Incubating nits may be difficult to see because they're very tiny and camouflaged to match hair color. They're easiest to spot around the ears and the hairline of the neck. Empty nits may be easier to spot because they're lighter in color and further from the scalp. However, the presence of nits doesn't necessarily indicate an active infestation.

TREATMENT

Remove head lice and get rid of all eggs

There is not one product that will kill all the eggs 100% of the time

A nit comb with microgrooves will be necessary to wrap around the hair strands to drag everything off

Hair must be combed strand by strand for 2 weeks to be sure all nits are gone

Extreme hot and cold kill lice.  Putting clothing, pillows and bedsheets in the dryer for 30 should work

Wash and boil hairbrushes, combs and hairclips

WHEN TO SEEK CARE:  If you suspect you have head lice, please be evaluated at health services.  Many things are often mistaken for nits, including:

Dead or empty nits from a previous head lice infestation

Dandruff

Residue from hair products

Bead of dead hair tissue on a hair shaft (hair cast)

Scab tissue, dirt or other debris

Other small insects found in the hair

PREVENTION

It is very difficult to prevent transmission of head lice.  However, refrain from sharing personal items with others (hats, hooded sweatshirts, scarves, combs, brushes, towels, headsets or earbuds).  Close head to head contact when taking pictures is another means of transmission. 

Lice do not cause any serious illness or carry disease.  People may be ashamed that they have lice as it carries a heavy stigma.  It is a common misconception that lice result due to poor hair hygiene.  That is untrue.  Lice do not discriminate; it can happen to anyone!