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Head lice

Lice are small wingless insects. They have six legs with hook-like claws for grasping onto hairs. They feed on human blood. There are three types of lice.

  • Head lice are common in children.
  • Body lice are common in vagrants, live in clothing and only visit the skin to feed.
  • Crab or pubic lice are found in the pubic hair area.
Although the itching is annoying, and scratching can sometimes result in skin infections, head lice are not really a health problem. Sometimes people scratch so much that they damage the skin and bacterial infections can then occur, but there is no evidence that they carry any serious diseases. Head lice are so common that they are now just a fact of life, and nothing to be embarrassed about. On average, someone with head lice will have about 20.

The short life of a head louse

  • The louse begins as an egg, with a hard brown shell
  • The egg hatches after 7–10 days, leaving behind the empty egg case, which appears white
  • The baby louse takes10 days to grow into an adult, shedding its skin three times as it grows
  • When the louse reaches adulthood, it is about the size of a sesame seed (about 3 mm long)
  • The louse clings to hairs with its claws, and sucks blood from the scalp several times a day. If it is a female, it busies itself laying five eggs each night and attaching them to the base of hairs close to the scalp where they will be kept warm
  • The louse keeps looking for any opportunity to get onto another head, by clambering across a ‘bridge’ of hair. It cannot jump
  • After 30 days of being an adult, it dies

Find out more in our sections on how head lice are caught, how to tell if you have head lice and how to treat head lice, or read Dr Phil Hammond's light-hearted poem on head lice.

Written by: Dr Margaret Stearn
Edited by: Dr Margaret Stearn
Last updated: Friday, March 18th 2011


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Comments on this article

Posted by Optional on 28/09/2015 at 02:42

How do you get rid of head lice?

Posted by layla c on 27/08/2015 at 11:28

I had lice once and my dad said he was going to cut my beautiful hair off and I cryed for days

Posted by Optional on 26/09/2012 at 08:11

the nits bite your scalp and then suck blood leaving behind saliva the saliva is what causes it too itch

Posted by Optional on 19/07/2012 at 01:35

I was scrtching my hair then I looked at mt finger a d saw little very small bug and I have been very scratchy in my head

Posted by Optional on 17/07/2012 at 08:09

Im 12 and I think I have lice should I tell my.parents or try to on my own?

Posted by Optional on 17/02/2012 at 12:11

i only had head lice once in my life when i was 16 and expeting my 1st child, my mother in law sorted that out for me with viniger and coming, i have just found thati have head lice at the age of 54 and i dont know were i got them from can any one help i have treated my hair with a formuler

Posted by Optional on 21/02/2011 at 04:14

interesting! but how do you find out when you have lice/dandruff?

Posted by Kyles on 13/02/2011 at 09:43

Caught nits off my neice & found totally soaking your hair & scalp in Listerine Mouthwash & cover with shower cap & wash out after 2 hours... eggs will come off hair easily... for any stubborn ones = spray white vinegar on hair while combing through.. can also the white vinegar for washing the bedding & linen

Posted by Just passing through on 03/01/2011 at 12:15

Lice is a nightmare to get rid of, most of those over the counter treatments no longer work on the lice as they have become immune to them. There are a lot of home made ways to get rid of them and I tried a few but they didn't work. What worked for me was soaking my kid's hair over night in olive oil with a shower cap. It's VERY messy but it worked for us. It also makes the kid's hair very silky and shiny after washing it all out. I then washed her hair with dawn dish washing liquid, then blow dried it. Now we use tea tree oil shampoo and conditioner on her and I blow dry and straighten her hair and we haven't had another lice out break since then. YOU HAVE TO KEEP CHECKING your child's head for at least a month or two to make sure you didn't miss ANYTHING. You leave just ONE nit and it starts all over again! I still do a head check on her once a month just to be on the safe side and give her an olive oil treatment once a month.

Posted by Lex on 29/12/2010 at 09:42

I've had a rash on the back of my neck for about a month and I just started finding bugs in my hair! My boyfriend's sister had headlice a few months ago, could she have given it to me? My mom checked my head and said I don't have it, but since then I've found about three bugs in my hair. (That was a few hours ago.) What now?!

Posted by Optional on 06/12/2010 at 05:17

i had nits but my mum got rid of them but im still itchy this website hasnt really helped me though, but am i just paranoid!!

Posted by Worried on 13/11/2010 at 08:44

My daughter has afro hair and I think she has nits!!!! How do I get rid of them as I cannot get headlice comb through her hair!!????

Posted by Optional on 04/09/2010 at 04:25

I got lice in July, I got a treatment and it came back i did the second treatment and my mom said there was nothing yet my head kept itching??? i put a relazer in my hair and i havn't seen anything but im very paranoid it will come back you know and i clean my room alot... my mom keeps telling me sence its been a few weeks they'd all be dead but my dads heads iching now have they come back?

Posted by optional on 26/06/2010 at 07:23

Omg please help me i have had head lice since august nothing works the only option is for me to shave my hair and as a high school student and nearly a teen i dont want to do the "/ what shall i dooooo ?

Posted by Optional on 23/02/2010 at 06:27

thank you

Posted by Anonymous on 04/11/2009 at 09:05

I nit combed my kids at the weekend and must have got some on my clothes. The little so and so's have taken up residence in my nether regions. I thought only crabs could do that??

Posted by LFC2009 on 07/08/2009 at 08:57

I thought I had lice, because I had an ant in my hair.but I checked out with my mom.And I didn't have nothing,it was jus dandruff.

Posted by Anonymous on 22/06/2009 at 06:29

my mum bought like about 10 head lice treatments already but its still coming back, the treatment is not working. help!

Posted by hairdresser on 10/04/2009 at 01:17

First, spray live lice with neat vinegar poured into a clean water spray bottle. Comb vinegar thoroughly through the hair making sure it is well covered, leave for 10 minutes. To remove the eggs. Wash the hair, rub in loads of conditioner, part dry with a towel, then starting from underneath the hair at the neckline, (pin long hair up with butterfly clips) comb through with a nit comb (bought cheaply from any chemist)section by section. Very time consuming, but it does the trick!

Posted by Sophie on 04/02/2009 at 08:46

My little sister had them at one point , you need to use pure vinegar it gets them out and since then she has never had them before but be carfull near the eyes

Posted by Mrs Tippett on 19/12/2008 at 07:37

How do I get rid of the white eggs from my daughters hair.


View what people have said about head lice

Fascinating facts

In the UK, each month 20% of hairdressing salons see head lice in a client's hair

An estimated 5% of the UK population has head lice

Each year in the UK, the NHS and the general public together spend £29 million on head lice treatments

'Lousy', 'nitwit', 'nit-picking', 'nitty-gritty', 'go through something with a fine-tooth comb' - all these phrases come from lice

The average person with head lice has about 20 lice. During their 30-day life, 20 lice will lay 2652 eggs (Lancet 2003;361:99-100)

After mating, a female head louse keeps spare sperm in a special container in her body (spermatotheca), so that she does not have to bother with mating again, but can use the sperm she has kept (Lancet 2003;361:99-100)

Head lice are fairly speedy. They can move at 23 cm per minute (Lancet 2003;361:99-100)

Head lice have probably been annoying humans for at least 72 000 years (New Scientist 2003;23 Aug)

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