Head Lice

Head lice at various stages of development from egg to imago ( adult ) on white background
Even people who practice good personal hygiene may become infested with lice. See more pictures of skin problems.
ŠiStockphoto.com/Kevin Dyer

If your head starts to itch, there could be several reasons why. You could have a dry scalp. You could be having an allergic reaction to something. Or your head could be infested with tiny parasites that are feeding on your blood. Although the latter case might sound a little terrifying, it's really just an inconvenience, much like dry scalp or an allergic reaction. Those little parasites are called head lice, and aside from making your head itch, they aren't going to cause you any harm. Head lice are also known as Pediculus capitus, and an infestation is commonly referred to as pediculiasis. They're actually quite common, and if you become infested, it's nothing to be embarrassed about.

There are several misconceptions about head lice. For instance, most people think you get them as a result of poor hygiene. It doesn't matter, however, if you're extremely clean; you can still end up with head lice. More often than not, young children are the ones who become infested. They're more likely to pass lice on to their peers through close contact, sharing clothes or any other type of behavior that brings them together in close proximity [source: Perlstein]. Luckily, head lice can't survive long away from a scalp, so the chance of getting them by another means is slim.


If you do end up with head lice, the good news is that the condition is easily treatable. The right shampoo and a little extra care can easily treat your parasite problem. The key is in following the directions. There are also several steps you can take to prevent getting lice in the first place. There are even a few homemade remedies that may be able to take care of the problem. After all, lice were around long before modern medicine -- they've actually been found on the remains of ancient mummies [source: Pollack].

The first step in figuring out whether or not you have lice is identifying the symptoms. Keep reading to find out exactly what they are.


Head Lice Symptoms

You may have lice and not even know it. The problem is that sometimes they make people's heads itch, and sometimes they don't. If they don't, you simply wouldn't know that your head was infested with parasites. There is often a tickling sensation associated with lice, however, but it's not the kind that makes you want to laugh. It's more likely to be an uncomfortable and irritating nuisance. Whether lice make you itch or tickle, the most common reaction is scratching, and that's where physical symptoms start appearing.

The itching associated with lice is actually an allergic reaction to their saliva [source: Mayo Clinic]. This may cause red bumps on your scalp, but you can also end up with bumps and irritated sores by scratching too much. In some cases, this may even lead to a bacterial infection requiring treatment with antibiotics [source: Gavin]. This is the extreme, however. Most people who become infested with lice experience minor irritation, and the only way to identify the problem is with careful observation.


Lice are small, but they're not so small that you can't see them. The easy way to determine whether or not you or someone else has lice is to do a quick inspection of the scalp. There are basically three things to look for: nits, nymphs and lice. Nymphs, which are young lice, and lice aren't easy to see. They're about the size of a sesame seed and they move quickly. If you catch a glimpse of one, you're lucky. What you're more likely to find are nits, or lice eggs. These tiny eggs can be yellow, tan or brown, and you'll find them attached to hair shafts near the scalp. They hatch one to two weeks after they're laid, so if you find any, treat the scalp and hair immediately [source: Gavin].

Lice aren't necessarily easy to prevent, but there are a few things you can do to lower your chances of becoming infested. Keep reading to find out what they are.


How to Prevent Head Lice

Children are often the ones who become infested with lice because they tend to be more carefree in their interactions with others. It's not unusual for two kids to share a hat or another article of clothing. They may sleep in the same bed or be in close contact at school for long periods of time. These types of behavior are normal, but they're also why children are more at risk. Here's what you can do to try and prevent your child or yourself from getting lice.

The most common way to get lice is from head to head contact. Talk to your child about avoiding this type of interaction. It's not always easy, but educating children about the potentially uncomfortable symptoms of head lice might be enough to make a difference. Sharing anything that touches the hair isn't a good idea either. This includes hats, scarves, barrettes, towels and several other commonly shared items. Combs and brushes are extremely important to take into account. In between uses, both should be soaked in hot water to wash away any lice that might be clinging on to them [source: Centers for Disease Control].


If you know someone who has been infested, avoid using furniture they were recently in contact with. The same goes for blankets and toys, especially stuffed animals. Anything an infected person has come in contact with that can and should be washed. Use hot water and high heat when drying. If something can't be washed, simply seal it in a plastic bag for a couple of weeks. You can vacuum as well, but this can be a last resort. The chances of someone becoming infested by lice that have fallen off and made their way onto your carpet are slim [source: Centers for Disease Control].

Despite your best efforts, you or your child may still end up with lice. Keep reading to learn about treatment options.


Head Lice Treatments

Getting rid of lice isn't complicated. It can be as simple as taking a trip down to the local drug store. Most of time, you won't even have to go see a doctor. There are several over-the-counter treatment options available. You just need to know what you're looking for. Medicated shampoos are among the most popular. They're easy to use, and more often than not, they're effective. When picking one out, look for pyrethin or permethrin in the ingredients. Two of the most popular brands are Rid and Nix. Whichever product you decide to use, follow the directions as closely as possible for the best results [source: Mayo Clinic].

Unfortunately, even if you follow the directions perfectly, it may not be enough. Lice in some parts of the world have become resistant to many over-the-counter treatments. If your lice are a little too resilient, you may need a prescription to coax them off. Malathion, lindane and benzoyl alcohol lotion are three commonly prescribed treatments for lice. Malathion is an insecticide, and in low doses it's safe to use on humans. It's simply applied to your hair and rubbed into your scalp. Malathion is flammable, so be careful around any open flames. You may also want to avoid it if you're pregnant or breast-feeding. Lindane comes in several different forms, including creams and shampoos. It's considered a safe treatment, but it has been known to cause skin irritation and seizures in some patients. Benzoyl alcohol lotion is a newer treatment; although it's effective and safe for adults, it shouldn't be used on infants under six months of age. Doing so could result in seizures, coma or even death [source: Mayo Clinic].


No matter what treatment you end up going with, you'll still have some work to do when it's all over. While most products are great at killing lice, they don't get rid of nits, and that means in one to two weeks you're likely to have a new infestation. You can remove nits by hand or buy a special comb while you're at the drug store. Either way, this last step should be repeated until all signs of the lice infestation have disappeared [source: Family Doctor].

There may be a few home remedies that are effective at removing those lingering lice as well. Keep reading to learn more about them.


Home Remedies for Head Lice

There's a lot of debate about whether or not home remedies can actually get rid of lice. What we do know is that lice have been around for a long time, whereas medicated shampoos haven't. So that means before commercial treatments, people either lived with the parasites or they found other ways to get rid of them. Many of the medicated treatments used today are effective, but they also contain pesticides, and misuse could lead to some serious side effects. For this reason alone, some people shy away from these treatment options.

If you want to try a pesticide-free home remedy, there are a few that have withstood the test of time. White vinegar is perhaps the most popular. The important thing to keep in mind is that this treatment won't kill lice or nits. It simply loosens lice eggs from hair shafts and allows them to be easily removed. All you have to do is soak your hair in white vinegar, wrap your head in a towel that's also been soaked in white vinegar, leave it on for about an hour, and then have someone pick the nits out of your hair.


Oil-based treatments are another option. Some people recommend covering your head in mayonnaise or olive oil and then covering it with a shower cap or plastic wrap. If you try this out, blow-dry your hair with the plastic covering still on. The heat may be enough to kill the lice. Leave the covering on for about two hours, and then use a special nit-removing comb to get rid of all the nits in your hair. When you're done, shampoo your hair and comb it again with the special comb. Vaseline can be used instead of mayonnaise or olive oil, but it's a lot harder to get out of your hair, so be careful.

While these home remedies might help get rid of nits, none of them have ever been proven effective at eliminating lice completely. The only other natural treatment is shaving off all of your hair. This isn't an option for everyone, but for those who are willing to go bald for a few weeks, it can actually work. Just make sure you dispose of the infested hair properly in a sealed plastic bag [source: WebMD].

If you still have questions about head lice, see the links on the next page for lots more information.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Head Lice: Prevention & Control." May 16, 2008. (Oct. 13, 2009)http://www.cdc.gov/lice/head/prevent.html
  • Family Doctor. "Head Lice -- What They Are and How to Eliminate Them." Nov. 2006. (Oct. 13, 2009)http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/common/skin/skin/865.printerview.html
  • Gavin, Mary. "Infections: Head Lice." Kid's Health. Sept. 2008. (Oct. 13, 2009)http://kidshealth.org/parent/infections/common/lice.html#
  • Mayo Clinic. "Head Lice: Symptoms." June 6, 2009. (Oct. 13, 2009)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/head-lice/DS00953/DSECTION=symptoms
  • Mayo Clinic. "Head Lice: Treatments and drugs." June 6, 2009. (Oct. 13, 2009)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/head-lice/DS00953/DSECTION=treatments%2Dand%2Ddrugs
  • Perlstein, David. "Head Lice Infestation (Pediculosis)." Medicine Net. Dec. 14, 2007. (Oct. 13, 2009)http://www.medicinenet.com/head_lice/article.htm
  • Pollack, Richard. "Head Lice Information." Harvard School of Public Health. (Oct. 13, 2009)http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/headlice.html#what
  • PR Web. "September is National Head Lice Prevention Month." Sept. 2, 2009. (Oct. 13, 2009)http://www.prweb.com/releases/2009/09/prweb2815184.htm
  • Schoenstadt, Arthur. "Home Remedy for Head Lice." eMed TV. Sept. 17, 2008. (Oct. 13, 2009)http://kids.emedtv.com/head-lice/home-remedy-for-head-lice.html
  • The National Pediculosis Association, Inc. "Frequently Asked Questions: Do pets get head lice?" Headlice.org. (Oct. 13, 2009)http://www.headlice.org/faq/questions.htm
  • University of Maine. "Head Lice." Pest Management Office. July 22, 2009. (Oct. 13, 2009)http://pmo.umext.maine.edu/factsht/headlice.htm
  • WebMD. "Lice -- Other Treatment." Nov. 24, 2008. (Oct. 13, 2009)http://children.webmd.com/tc/lice-other-treatment