Head Lice (for Parents) (2024)

What Are Head Lice?

Head lice are tiny wingless insects. They live among human hairs and feed on blood from the scalp.

Head lice are a common problem, especially for kids. They spread easily from person to person, and sometimes are tough to get rid of. Their bites can make a child's scalp itchy and irritated, and scratching can lead to infection.

Head lice are annoying, but they're not dangerous and they don't spread disease. They're not a sign of poor hygiene — head lice need blood and they don't care whether it's from someone who's clean or dirty.

It's best to treat head lice right away to prevent them from spreading.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Head Lice?

Even though they're tiny, you can see head lice. Here's what to look for:

  • Lice eggs (nits). These look like tiny yellow, tan, or brown dots before they hatch. Lice lay nits on hair shafts close to the scalp, where the temperature is perfect for keeping warm until they hatch. Nits look a bit like dandruff, but aren't removed by brushing or shaking them off.

    Unless a child has many head lice, it's more common to see nits in the hair than live lice crawling on the scalp. Lice eggs hatch 1–2 weeks after they're laid. After hatching, the remaining shell looks white or clear and stays attached to the hair shaft. This is when it's easiest to spot them, as the hair is growing longer and the egg shell is moving away from the scalp.

  • Adult lice and nymphs (baby lice). Adult lice are no bigger than a sesame seed and are grayish-white or tan. Nymphs are smaller and become adult lice about 1–2 weeks after they hatch. This life cycle repeats itself about every 3 weeks. Most lice feed on blood several times a day, and they can survive up to 2 days off the scalp.
  • Scratching. With lice bites come itching and scratching. This is due to a reaction to the saliva (spit) of lice. But the itching doesn't always start right away. It depends on how sensitive a child's skin is to the lice. It might take weeks for kids with lice to start scratching. They may complain, though, of things tickling or moving around on their heads.
  • Small red bumps or sores from scratching. Some kids have mild irritation from scratching, while others may get a bothersome rash. Scratching a lot can lead to a bacterial infection. Watch for swollen lymph nodes (glands) on the back or front of the neck, and red, tender skin that might have crusting and oozing. Doctors can treat a skin infection with an antibiotic.

How Can I Check My Child for Head Lice?

Look for lice and nits on the scalp, behind the ears, and around the nape of the neck. It's rare for lice to be in eyelashes or eyebrows.

It can be tough to find a nymph or adult louse. Usually, there aren't many of them and they move fast. Look for nits attached to the hair near the scalp. They can look like dandruff or dirt. To tell them apart, pull on the little speck with your fingers — dandruff and dirt can be removed, but nits stay stuck. A magnifying glass and a bright light can help with your inspection.

The best way to check is by using a fine-tooth comb on wet hair. After applying lots of conditioner, comb the hair out in very small sections, and look for lice or nits on the comb. You can wipe the comb onto a tissue or paper towel where it will be easier to see them.

If your child is itchy and scratching their head but you're not sure if it's lice, ask your child's doctor or the nurse at school or childcare center to take a look.

How Are Head Lice Treated?

The two main ways to treat lice are:

  • medicine
  • removing by hand

Medicine: Medicated shampoos, cream rinses, and lotions are available that kill lice. These may be over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription medicines. If you buy OTC, be sure it's safe for your child's age. While some over-the-counter shampoos are safe for kids as young as 2 months, others are safe only for kids 2 years and older.

Sometimes lice can be resistant to some medicines, which means the treatment won't work. If you think a treatment isn’t working, talk to your doctor or a pharmacist. They might recommend a different one. The doctor also can prescribe a medicated shampoo or lotion. For very resistant lice, the doctor might recommend taking medicine by mouth.

Whether the medicine is OTC or prescription, always follow the directions closely. Applying too much can be harmful. Applying too little won't work.

Removing by hand: Removing lice and nits by hand can finish the job if the medicine did not completely rid your child of lice (no medicine is 100% effective). It is also an option for anyone who doesn't want to use an insecticide. And it is the only option for children 2 months old or younger, who should not use medicated lice treatment.

To do this, run a fine-tooth comb through your child’s wet hair one section at a time (wetting the hair temporarily stops the lice from moving). You can put lots of conditioner in the wet hair before combing to make the hair more slippery and easier to comb through. After each comb-through, wipe the comb on a wet paper towel to inspect for lice or nits. Do this every 2–3 days for 2–3 weeks after the last live louse was seen.

There's no need to buy electronic combs that claim to kill lice or make nits easier to remove. No studies have been done to back up these claims. You also don't need to buy special vinegar solutions to apply to the scalp before picking nits. Water and conditioner works fine.

Though petroleum jelly, mayonnaise, or olive oil are sometimes used to try to suffocate head lice, these treatments may not work. If medicine doesn't work and you want to try these methods, talk to your doctor first.

A few important things to NOT do: Don't use a hairdryer after applying scalp treatments. Some treatments for lice use flammable ingredients and can catch on fire. Don't use pesticide sprays or hire a pest control company to try to get rid of the lice; these can be harmful. Don't use essential oils (such as ylang ylang oil or tea tree oil) to treat lice on the scalp. They can cause allergic skin reactions and aren't approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).Don't ever use highly flammable chemicals such as gasoline or kerosene on anyone.

Are Head Lice Contagious?

Head lice spread quickly from person to person, especially in group settings like schools, childcare centers, slumber parties, sports activities, and camps.

They can't fly or jump, but they have claws that let them crawl and cling to hair. They spread through head-to-head contact, and sharing clothing, bed linens, combs, brushes, and hats.

Pets can't catch head lice and pass them on to people or the other way around.

Do Kids Have to Stay Home From School?

In the past, kids with head lice were kept home from school. But now doctors don't recommend these "no-nit" policies. In most cases, a child who has lice should stay at school until the end of the day, go home and get treatment, and return to school the next day. While they are at school, kids should avoid head-to-head contact with other kids. It can help to put long hair up in a bun, braid, or ponytail.

Can We Prevent Head Lice?

To get rid of head lice and their eggs, and to help prevent them from coming back:

  • Wash all bed linens, stuffed animals, and clothing used during the 2 days before treatment (any lice that fell off before that will not be alive). Wash in very hot water (130°F [54.4°C]), then put them in the hot cycle of the dryer for at least 20 minutes.
  • Dry clean items that can't be washed. Or put them in airtight bags for 2 weeks.
  • Vacuum carpets and any upholstered furniture (in your home or car), and throw away the vacuum cleaner bag.
  • Soak hair-care items like combs, barrettes, hair ties or bands, headbands, and brushes in hot water or throw them away. Tell kids not to share these items.
  • Because lice easily pass from person to person in the same house, check all family members. Treat everyone who has lice so they won't pass it back and forth.
  • Tell kids to try to avoid head-to-head contact at school (in gym, on the playground, or during sports) and while playing at home with other children.
  • Every 3 or 4 days, check kids who had close contact with a person who has lice. Then, treat any who have lice or nits close to the scalp.

Will They Ever Be Gone?

As many parents know, fighting head lice can be an ongoing battle. There's no doubt that they can be hard bugs to get rid of.

If you've tried everything and your child still has lice, it could be because:

  • some nits were left behind (if you see nits far from the scalp — more than ½ inch (1 cm) — and no live lice, these are probably dead and treatment likely isn't needed)
  • your child is still around someone who has lice
  • the treatment you're using isn't effective

If your child has lice 2 weeks after you started treatment or if your child's scalp looks infected, call your doctor.

There are professional lice treatment centers that remove lice and nits for a fee. These services are effective but often costly.

What Else Should I Know?

Remind your child that while having lice can be embarrassing, anyone can get them. Having head lice is not a sign of dirtiness or poor hygiene. The pesky little bugs can be a problem no matter how often kids do — or don't — wash their hair or bathe.

Dealing with head lice can be frustrating, but be patient. Follow the treatments and prevention tips from your doctor, and soon your family will be lice-free.

Head Lice (for Parents) (2024)


Do parents usually get lice if their kids have it? ›

Because lice easily pass from person to person in the same house, check all family members. Treat everyone who has lice so they won't pass it back and forth.

How long will lice live on bedding? ›

Head lice survive less than 1–2 days if they fall off a person and cannot feed; nits cannot hatch and usually die within a week if they are not kept at the same temperature as that found close to the scalp.

What kills lice and eggs instantly? ›

No methods have been found to instantly kill lice, though tea tree and lavender oil combinations in carrier oils have proven to be effective and time-efficient.

Can I sleep in my bed if I have lice? ›

Lice are most often spread by head-to-head contact with another person who has lice, such as sleeping in the same bed. Although they do not survive long away from a human host, lice may also be spread by wearing another person's hat or clothing, or by using another person's comb, brush, or bedding.

Can you be around someone with lice and not get it? ›

Lice Exposure: Low Risk for Getting It

Most children who are exposed to someone with head lice do not get them. Lice cannot jump or fly. They can only crawl. Lice are only passed to others by close head-to-head contact.

How likely are parents to get lice? ›

Head lice is very common among kids between ages 3 and 11. If you're a parent, teacher, or caregiver of a child this age, lice are more likely to find their way into your home. You can have lice and not yet know it. Lice eggs (nits) are very hard to see and may not cause itching at first.

Do you have to wash bedding everyday with lice? ›

How Often to Wash Laundry Infested With Lice. Be patient, as you will likely have to rewash the same clothes and bedding more than once. In particular, you should change and wash the bedding every single day until your house is free from lice. If even just a few nits remain alive, a re-infestation can occur.

Does lice stay on couches? ›

Lice cannot live on couches, carpets, beds, or anywhere else other than on a human body. They are only spread by direct human to human contact or through shared items like combs and brushes.

Can head lice survive the washing machine? ›

Either washing done with a water temperature of at least 50°C or drying is necessary to kill head lice and nits.

Can head lice live in pillows? ›

Since head lice must feed on the scalp of a host to thrive, they cannot dwell on pillows or linens. Lice can only live for 48 hours after dropping off a host scalp. While lice can spread from one person to another's head if they share bedding, the odds of them doing so is unlikely.

How long can lice live on a hairbrush? ›

The CDC also advises against sharing hairbrushes. Adult head lice can survive for 2 days and nits for around 1 week on a hairbrush. Soaking combs or hairbrushes in hot water of at least 130°F (54.4°C) for 5–10 minutes will kill any lice and nits.

How many lice is a bad infestation? ›


In a normal healthy child, an infestation usually involves less than 10 live lice (7). Infestations may be asymptomatic. Itching may occur if the individual becomes sensitized to antigenic components of louse saliva that is injected as the louse feeds (7).

How far can lice jump? ›

Head lice do not have wings or jumping legs, so they cannot fly or jump from head to head. They can only crawl. People catch head lice from direct head-to-head contact with another person who has head lice. This can happen when people play, cuddle or work closely together.

Do I need to clean my mattress after lice? ›

Toys and hard plastic items like hair brushes can be boiled in hot water to kill off any remaining lice. Mattresses, chairs, car seats, carpets, and sofas can be vacuumed. Other items that cannot be vacuumed or put in the dryer can be bagged in an airtight bag and left for 24-48 hours until lice die off.

Will lice go away on their own? ›

Lice are parasites that feed on human blood and can be found on people's bodies. There are treatments for the itching caused by lice bites but they do not get rid of the infestation. Lice will not go away on their own. The infestation needs to be treated.

Do adults get lice from kids? ›

In fact, any person that has hair can contract head lice. However, it is not something that tends to be very common in adults. There tends to be certain types of adults that are more likely to get head lice. Parents of small children are often at a higher risk as they can contract head lice from their children.

How easy is it to get lice from someone? ›

Most commonly, head lice are spread by direct head-to-head contact with an infested person. They may also be spread by sharing personal items such as combs, brushes, other hair-care items, towels, pillows, hats, and other head coverings.

Are kids more likely to get lice than adults? ›

Lice spread through physical contact. Children are more likely to contract lice than adults. Lice have existed for as long as humans. While some types can live elsewhere on the body, the most common species lives in the hair on the head.

How easy is it to get lice from another person? ›

Head lice spread quickly through direct head-to-head contact. They are more common in children, spreading easily in group settings such as preschool or elementary school. A head louse, or Pediculus humanus capitis, is a tiny, wingless parasite that attaches to a person's hair and feeds on their blood.

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