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Signs of Lice and Causes of Lice in Hair

Updated on August 23, 2017
Farkle profile image

I'm a writer and, I must confess, hypochondriac, who loves to write about anything medically related. I also love to travel.

Head louse gripping a shaft of hair
Head louse gripping a shaft of hair | Source

Definition of the word "nit"

The word "nit" has been used interchangeably to depict eggs in various stages. This has created confusion in school policies. So when somebody talks about it "nits" he/she could be talking about the eggs in any of the following circumstances:

  • Live eggs that given the right temperature and environment will eventually hatch (eggs at this stage have the potential for infesting others or re-infesting the host)
  • Empty remnants of eggs from lice that already hatched
  • Dead eggs that will never hatch (often seen after applying lice products)

It's important to distinguish at what stage the eggs is as this helps determine if the host can infest others.

It's the news parents dread and something that nobody regardless of age will ever want to hear : "you have lice in your hair." As you receive the news all sorts of thoughts cross your mind. "What?" "How in the world did I get them?" or "Now, I know why my scalp was so itchy" Most of all, you may wonder what these pesky parasites look like, and the best way to get rid of them once and for all. So let's start off by learning more about these parasites, as knowing them well is key to better understanding how to defeat them.

The parasite's official name is "pediculosis humanus capitis". These critters are whitish-brown to reddish-brown, do not have wings and do not jump. Their short, stumpy legs make it difficult for them to walk on flat surfaces, but they manage pretty well walking on hairy areas. They rarely fall from the head. Courtesy of their six claws, lice have the uncanny ability to hold onto single hair shafts and climb up and down as needed. They can also be found on eyebrows and eyelashes.

Lice are quite eager feeders, feeding on your scalp about four-five times a day by piercing the skin with needle-like mouthparts. Unlike ticks, they do not burrow their mouthparts into the skin. Once they pierce the skin, they inject saliva which contains an anti-coagulant that aids them in sucking blood. Head lice spend their entire lives on their hosts and can't survive for much long without feeding. Unlike other parasites, the good news is that head lice are not vectors of any diseases, yet,their presence can be disturbing and quite annoying to most people.

The life cycle of lice

The good news is that lice cannot live for more than 2 days without feeding but the bad news is that, once on the scalp, lice can live on the human scalp for up to 30 days and are quite quick to multiply. Female lice can lay up to 6 eggs each day. Each egg produces one louse. The eggs are about 1mm in size and resemble a whitish-yellow or dark brown speck. These eggs are attached firmly to an individual strand of hair found near the scalp (in particular behind the ears and nape) with a substance resembling cement secreted by the female. The lice eggs cannot live without a human host. In order to hatch, they require the warmth of the scalp for incubation (just as chicken eggs need an incubator). Once dislodged from a hair shaft, they are therefore likely to die within a week before hatching.

After about 7 to 10 days of living nearby the scalp, the eggs hatch and nymphs are born. Nymphs are tan or white in color and measure between 1.1 and 1.3 mm. According to CDC, nymphs can only live for a few hours without feeding. In a couple of weeks, the nymphs mature into adult head lice which are about 2 mm, which is about the size of a sesame seed. Once adult, male and female lice will mate and only 1 to 2 days later, the female will lay eggs. Females lay between 3 to 8 eggs per day for about 16 days. When well-fed, a lice can live on the human scalp for about 32 to 35 days. Female lice are generally slightly larger than male.

How in the world did I get head lice?

If you own a domestic animal, it may be easy to point the finger at him/her. Truth is, it is highly unlikely Rover or Snowball is to blame. According to the Centers for Disease Control, "Dogs, cats, and other pets don't play a role in the transmission of human lice." Cats and dogs may be affected by lice but they belong to a different species and the ones that affect them aren't interested in humans. Head lice feed exclusively on human blood and its name is meant to emphasize this with the word "humanus" inserted in this parasite's scientific name.

So how did you get lice in the first place? Don't feel bad first of all, as personal hygiene or cleanliness has nothing to do with lice! Lice just want to get on the head to suck blood, they care less if you are rich or poor, living on the streets or in an up-scale hotel. Actually, they prefer clean hair as oily hair makes it difficult for them to attach. In order to get head lice you must somehow come in contact with somebody that is already infested with them. Contact in most cases occurs head-to-head. Children are more likely to have lice due to their habits of staying in close contact with other children. Lice will transfer from one head to the other like an acrobat swings on a trapeze.

Indirect transmission is uncommon according to the Centers for Disease Control, Fact is, lice hold on tightly to hair. Lice have been seen to not let go of hair shaft even when submerged under water. These secretive pests are also repelled by light, so when you check them by a strong light source, they'll likely move away looking for shadows or places to hide. In some though cases lice can be spread by sharing bedding, pillows, clothing, hats, towels, combs and brushes with somebody with lice.

This happens when lice crawl (it's quite rare though for them to crawl off the scalp as they cannot survive for long without blood) or when hair is shed with the nits attached and the eggs hatch on shared belongings.

Because lice have difficulty attaching to plastic, metal or other smooth, slippery surfaces, it's difficult for people to get lice from sharing helmets or headphones, but not impossible.

Note: If you were diagnosed with an active lice infestation, make sure your family is checked out as well.

Licefreee Head Lice Spray - OLD VERSION - Lice Treatment Kit for Kids and Adults - Kills Lice and Eggs on Contact - Includes Professional Metal Nit and Lice Comb - 6 Oz
Licefreee Head Lice Spray - OLD VERSION - Lice Treatment Kit for Kids and Adults - Kills Lice and Eggs on Contact - Includes Professional Metal Nit and Lice Comb - 6 Oz

Licefreee Spray! Instant Head Lice Treatment starts killing lice on contact. The non-toxic spray application makes the one step solution fast, safe and easy to apply. Licefreee Spray! is a homeopathic formula that has been tested 100% effective in killing lice and their nits. Combing is not a required step for the treatment to be effective, but may be required by your school's no-nit policy.


Signs you have head lice

Symptoms of lice may not be apparent right away, and sometimes, in light infestations, they may be so subtle they are hardly noticeable. It may take anywhere between 2 and 6 weeks for the symptoms to become evident in people who are for the first time infested. If you were near a person who has lice, it's important to take steps before symptoms appear so you can contain the infestation before it gets more out of hand. Following are symptoms of a lice infestation.

Head scratching. If you find yourself repeatedly scratching your head and it's not because you are debating on something, chances are, it may be a sign of a lice infestation. The head scratching is triggered by an allergic reaction to this critter's saliva. Since head scratching is caused by allergy, not all lice infestations cause itching.

Crawling Sensation. It may happen that one day you feel something crawling on your head. You may think nothing of it at first, but if you keep on getting this sensation, it may be a sign of lice. Lice may crawl about more in the night when they are more active, so you may see sleeplessness and irritability in affected children at night.

Small sores. Your repeated scratching will eventually cause some small sores in your head. Crusty blood may be present on your scalp. In some cases, sores may cause a secondary bacterial infection caused by bacteria found on the scalp's skin.

Presence of eggs. Lice eggs (also known as "nits") may resemble dandruff. Unlike dandruff though, lice eggs are reluctant to come off when brushed. They are pin-head in size, look oval in shape and measure about 1 mm in size. They typically attach on hair shafts within 1/4 inch of the scalp. This keeps the nits at the ideal temperature for hatching. Nits located farther are either already hatched, non-viable or are empty. According to the Department of Health in Victoria, Australia, a live egg will pop when squashed in between fingernails and will look like a clear, tiny boiled egg with its top cut off; whereas, a dead egg has crumpled sides.

Presence of adult lice. Sometimes, by parting the hair, it's possible to see adult lice which are the size of sesame seeds and can be tan to grayish-white in color. Your hairdresser may be the first to diagnose you with lice. It can be tricky at times to see adult lice as they quickly crawl, hide from light and tend to camouflage by aligning themselves along the hair shaft. Nymphs look like adult lice, only that they are smaller.They take about 9 days to mature into adults. Nymphs also feed on blood.

Prevention of head lice

These tips will help you prevent infestation and re-infestation:

  • Keeping your hair up in a ponytail, which is then plaited, can help lice from spreading
  • Lice combing can help you determine the presence of lice or eggs.
  • When sleeping over, bring your own pillowcase
  • Look at images of lice and lice eggs so to know what to look for
  • Consider that lice are hard to see, seek professional advice if unsure.
  • Use Neon Nits to see lice eggs.
  • Do not share brushes, towels, pillow cases,hats, scarves, coats, sports uniforms, hair ribbons, or barrettes, beds, or stuffed animals.
  • Don't freak out thinking that lice will crawl from an infested person’s head, all across the floor and then, up your arm to get onto your head. Lice are not fond of getting off the scalp (they die within 48 hours if they do not feed) and they are not equipped to feel comfortable walking on a flat surface.
  • Lice aren't much fond of hair sprayed with hair spray or with gel on it as they cannot get an easy hold of treated hair.
  • Watch out for windy days. Your hair flowing close to an infected person's hair is good way for lice to move from one strand to another.

Treatment for head lice

In order to kill lice, you'll need a strategic plan that kills both the adults and the eggs. The eggs should be manually removed to ensure the lice won't continue to reproduce. No lice treatment products on the market are capable of killing 100 percent of the eggs. You'll have to follow up with a second treatment about a week to 10 days to ensure any hatched eggs are killed. Between one shampoo and the other it's a good idea to comb with a lice comb to remove the remaining eggs as lice will hatch from the eggs that weren't killed so they will still be present until the second shampoo takes place. If no live lice are found that's a good sign that treatment is working. If lice are still present, it may be worthy to try a different product with a different active ingredient.

Combing alone with a louse comb alone should be done for an hour to an hour and a half daily or every other day, for about 14 days. Wet hair or hair with shampoo or conditioner helps in removing lice, eggs and nits. There are also lice combs furnished with an electrical charge to kill the lice.

Dale H. Clayton, Ph.D., of the University in the November issue of Pediatrics and his colleagues report that a blast of hot dry air was effective in killing 98 percent of lice eggs and 80 percent of hatched lice, curing nearly all infestations. "Hot air probably kills the lice and eggs by desiccating them," they explain in an article by MedPage Today. At home, a regular hair dryer can kill 96.7% of when the blow dryer is used repeatedly about every 1 to 7 days until the natural life cycle is over in about 4 weeks.

Live adult lice can be killed with medicated shampoos and creams. Most of them contain pyrethrins, synthetic pyrethrins and malathion. Nit combs help trap the lice and nits from the hair. And what about natural remedies? Some report success with tea tree oil and other oils. Frequent brushing can injure lice and make it difficult for them to attach.

And what about the environment? Vacuuming carpets and upholstery is helpful as it can prevent an adult from crawling on a new host in those couple of days when lice need to find a host ASAP in order to survive. Bedding, clothing and stuffed toys must be washed on high and tumble dried for at least 20 minutes.

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    • Farkle profile imageAUTHOR


      14 months ago

      Thanks for your comment on preventing lice from spreading from one person to another.

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 

      4 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      This is a very comprehensive info about lice. One important means to prevent is spread is to keep personal items personal. sharing these items can make them spread faster.


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