Head lice are tiny wingless insects about the size of a sesame seed that live in the hair of humans and animals where they feed on blood by biting the skin. Lice are not dangerous, and do not spread disease, but their bites can cause itching and sometimes skin irritation.
How head lice spreads
Head lice commonly affects children, however adults can also get it.
It can be passed between people by contact with personal items, for example shared combs and brushes.
Research has shown that head lice are not spread by shared hats.
Lice need warmth and blood to survive. They do not live for long on clothing, bedding or personal items.
Head lice symptoms
Lice often cause itching of the skin, but this is not always the case. Bites can cause the skin to become red and irritated, which can be made worse by scratching.
You can see the lice and nits (eggs) if you look closely at your head and scalp. Nits look like tiny white dots attached firmly to the hair. They cannot be brushed or flicked off the hair, but must be physically removed with fingers or fingernails.
Head lice treatment
Treating head lice involves the removal of head lice and nits from the hair by either using the conditioner and comb method, or chemical treatments.
The conditioner and comb method involves the use of conditioner and a special metal fine-toothed nit comb. The conditioner briefly stuns the lice making it easier for the nit comb to trap and remove the lice and nits.
If you decide to use a chemical, it is important that you follow the instructions closely that come with it. 2 to 3 chemical treatments with a week in between each should remove living lice. No single chemical treatment will work for everyone. A nit comb can be used to look for any signs of living lice.
Visit Pregnancy, Birth and Baby website for more information about treatments for head lice and how head lice affects children.
Should I keep my child home from school?
Here’s a list of common childhood illnesses, including head lice, and their recommended exclusion periods.
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Last reviewed: January 2018