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What does head lice look like?

Knowing what head lice looks like -- particularly at the larvae stage -- can save you and your child a great deal of hassle.

Adult head lice can vary in color from white to brown or gray. [© Shutterstock, 2009]
© Shutterstock, 2009
Adult head lice can vary in color from white to brown or gray.

If your child complains of intense itchiness or a "tickling" feeling in the scalp, it might be time to consider the unthinkable - that he's come down with head lice. If you've never encountered these pesky parasites before, your first question is probably, "what does head lice look like?" This article details the different types of head lice and how to detect these tiny pests.

Types of Head Lice

There are three types of head lice: the nit, the nymph and the adult louse. The nit is a tiny, oval louse egg. Because nits are usually white and attach to the hair shaft close to the scalp, they resemble flakes of dandruff. But unlike dandruff, nits can't be removed by using dandruff shampoo and are hard to brush away with a comb. Left on the hair shaft, a nit will hatch into a nymph, or baby louse, in about seven to eight days. 

The baby head louse looks like a small version of an adult head louse. Adult head lice are about the size of a sesame seed or a strawberry seed, and nymphs are even smaller. Nymphs quickly grow to adult size in about a week. What makes them grow? Feeding on the blood in the scalp - without that blood, head lice die in a few days. Both the nymph and adult head louse have six legs and vary in color, from white, brown or gray. 

Though head lice are small, you may be able to spot them if you look carefully. Check the hair near the scalp, the area behind the ears and the nape of the neck.

Head Lice Symptoms

An itchy scalp is a common indicator of head lice. As lice feed on the blood in the scalp, their saliva may trigger an allergic reaction that causes intense itching. In some cases, head lice can be present for weeks before any itching develops. 

Those with head lice also may feel a crawling, tickling feeling in their scalp. Small red sores or bumps on the scalp and neck are another indication of head lice. They can result from scratching or an allergic reaction to head lice saliva. These uncomfortable sensations can also cause overall irritability.

Head Lice Treatment

Fortunately, there are several successful treatments for head lice. These include washing the hair and scalp with a medicated shampoo, applying over-the-counter or prescription creams or lotions or taking a prescription pill. Your physician can evaluate the severity of a head lice infestation and tell you the best way to treat a particular case. In addition to treating lice on the body, it's important to inspect clothes, bedding or other items in your home for signs of lice. The Mayo Clinic's Self-Care Tips Web site is a great online source with tips for eliminating lice.

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