Head lice are small wingless insects that are light brown or grey in color and present on the scalp.
Head lice are small wingless insects that are light brown or grey in color and present on the scalp.

Head lice are small wingless insects that are light brown or grey in color and present on the scalp. They feed on the blood of the scalp and derive nutrition. Children are more commonly affected by an infestation with head lice than adults. Head lice can affect anyone, and having head lice is not a sign of poor hygiene. Head lice don't carry or spread bacterial or viral infections. It is usually not possible to get rid of head lice overnight, but there are several treatment options involving over-the-counter medicines, prescription medication, and lifestyle and home remedies that can help get rid of lice faster.

How do you know you have head lice?

Common signs and symptoms of lice infestation can include:

  • Itching of the scalp, neck, and ears (open wounds on the scalp and neck due to severe itching)
  • Visible lice on the scalp
  • Visible lice eggs on the hair shafts
  • Sores on the scalp, neck, and shoulders

How do you get head lice?

Female lice produce a sticky substance that attaches the eggs to the base of the hair shaft, up to 5 mm from the scalp.

The life cycle of lice:

  • Eggs: They typically hatch after six to nine days.
  • Nymphs: These are immature forms of the lice. They develop into mature adults after 9-12 days.
  • Adult lice: They usually live for three to four weeks, and the adult female lice lay around 6-10 eggs a day.

Transmission of head lice:

Head lice can’t jump or fly; they can only crawl. Lice usually directly transfer from the hair of one person to another. Therefore, head lice infestation may not always be a sign of poor personal hygiene or an unclean environment. Pets, such as dogs and cats, usually don't play a role in spreading head lice. Some possible ways of transmission include: 

  • Direct and close contact with another person that has head lice
  • Sharing hats and scarves
  • Brushes and combs
  • Hair accessories
  • Headphones
  • Sharing pillows, towels, and clothing

Lifestyle and home remedies

Alternative lifestyle and home remedies can be used alongside medical treatment to help get rid of lice faster. Home remedies alone may not be effective because there is no scientific proof of their effectiveness, and one may consult with a doctor before following them.

  • Wet combing: Combing the entire hair from the scalp to the tips when it is wet with a fine-toothed comb can remove lice and some eggs. A lubricant such as olive oil or coconut oil used while combing the hair makes it easy to remove the lice. This can be repeated every three to four days for a few weeks till there are no more lice found.
  • Essential oils: Certain essential oils such as tea tree oil or ylang-ylang oil may kill lice by suffocating them.
  • Smothering agents: There are several common home products that may kill lice by depriving them of air and smothering them. These products include petroleum jelly (Vaseline), olive oil, butter, or mayonnaise. Any of these products may be applied to the scalp and hair, covered with a shower cap, and left on overnight.
  • Dehydration: Applying hot air with a special machine operated by a professional can cause dehydration, possibly killing the eggs and lice.
  • Household cleaning: Lice usually can’t live more than a day without feeding off a human scalp, and the eggs can’t survive if they aren't incubated at the temperature in the scalp. Despite this, as a precaution, it is advised to clean items that a person with lice infestation has used in the previous two days. Cleaning recommendations include:
    • Washing clothing, soft toys, and bedding in hot soapy water at a temperature of 130°F (54.4°C) at least, and they should be dried at high heat.
    • Cleaning hair care items such as hair combs, brushes, or hair accessories by soaking them in hot soapy water for at least 10 minutes.
    • Safely sealing items that cannot be washed in plastic bags for at least two weeks.
    • Vacuuming the floor and furniture can help get rid of lice.


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Medically Reviewed on 12/14/2020