FAQ: Head Lice


What are head lice?

Head lice are tiny insects that infest the hair on your head, your eyebrows and eyelashes. The eggs of head lice, called nits, tightly attach to individual hairs and live close to the scalp. Lice can spread easily, especially among school-aged children. Lice cannot jump or fly but are spread by direct head-to-head contact, sharing clothing such as hats or bedding, and sharing combs or brushes. Having head lice is not a result of poor cleanliness. And not to worry; head lice do not carry diseases.

What are the signs and symptoms of having head lice?

  • extremely itchy scalp
  • small red bumps on the scalp or neck
  • tiny white nits on the hair close to the scalp that are difficult to remove
  • crawling sensation on the head

Note: lice are easier to see in bright light and by parting the hair to see close to the scalp. They are also easier to see near the ears and the nape of the neck.

How is head lice treated?

Over-the-counter lotions and shampoos that have pyrethrin or 1% permethrin are often the first choice. A second treatment is often needed about a week later. Side effects of permethrin include burning, itching, red skin, or numbness to the scalp. Prescription-strength medications such as 5% permethrin, malathion lotion, or benzyl alcohol lotion are other products that may be used.

It is very important that the nits are removed. This can be difficult because they cling tightly to the hair. Special nit combs are available at drugstores. You should do a second combing 7 to 10 days after the first. Nits may live for 2 weeks. Hats, scarves, coats and bedding should be washed in hot water and dried in a hot dryer. Combs and brushes should be washed and the room of the infected person should be vacuumed.

Are there any natural treatment options?

There is no clear scientific evidence that lice can be treated by home remedies such as olive oil, but there is some evidence that they may be suffocated by Cetaphil cleanser. Tea tree oil is another potentially helpful natural remedy. Hopefully an effective, natural treatment will become available!

How can head lice be prevented?

Children should be careful not to share hats, combs, or brushes with others.

For more information on Head Lice

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: www.cdc.gov/parasites/lice/
  2. American Academy of Dermatology: www.aad.org