Head lice

Head lice

Head lice are small insects that live on people's heads. Lice are found on the scalp behind the ears near the neckline at the back of the neck. They are rarely found on the body, eyelashes or eyebrows.

Head lice are most common among children ages 3 to 10 and their families. If your child has lice, it does not mean that your child, your family or your house is unclean.

Lice hold onto the hair with hook-like claws that are at the end of each of their six legs. Head lice are spread by:

  • having contact with an infected person during play or sports
  • wearing infested hats, scarves, hair accessories, coats or clothing
  • using infested hairbrushes, combs or towels
  • lying on a bed, couch, pillow, carpet or stuffed animal that has recently been used by an infested person.

Symptoms of head lice are:

  • tickling feeling or something moving in the hair
  • itching (an allergic reaction to the lice bites)
  • irritability
  • sores on the scalp caused by scratching.

How to identify head lice

There are three forms of head lice:

  • nits (lice eggs): Nits are hard to see and are often confused for dandruff or hair spray droplets. They are oval and usually yellow or white. They take about seven days to hatch.
  • nymph (baby lice): Nymphs become adults about seven days after hatching. They need blood to live.
  • adults (lice): Adult lice are the size of a sesame seed. They each have has six legs and are tan to grayish-white. Adult lice need blood to live and they can live up to 30 days on your child's head. They die within two days of falling off your child.

You can find head lice by looking at your child's scalp. It can be difficult to find a nymph or adult louse. If you do not see crawling lice, look for nits within one-quarter inch of the scalp.

What to do if your child gets lice

  • Use an over-the-counter lice product (such as Nix®). You may need to use more than one application. Follow package instructions.
  • Wash all clothing, bedding, towels, coats, hair accessories, combs, brushes or anything else used by your child and your family.
  • Clean your house well, including vacuuming your furniture.
  • Use a nit comb to remove nits attached to the hair.

How to prevent lice

Teach your child not to:

  • share clothing, hats, scarves, coats, sports uniforms, hairbrushes, combs or hair accessories
  • have head-to-head contact at school, day care and at home
  • lie on beds, couches, pillows, carpets or stuffed animals that have recently been in contact with an infested person
  • have physical contact with someone who has lice
  • Preschool and elementary-age children and their families most often get head lice.
  • Up to 40 percent (nearly half) of head lice do not respond to over-the-counter treatment. Call your health care provider to make an appointment if you:
    • think your child has lice but you can't see any
    • treated your child according to the instructions with an over-the-counter product two times and it didn't work.

Source: Allina Health's Patient Education, Guide for the Care of Children: Ages Birth to 5, sixth edition, ped-ah-91554
First Published: 02/01/2010
Last Reviewed: 11/16/2022