How to Tell if You Have Head Lice

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When there’s an epidemic of head lice at your child’s school, you may feel a little itchy. But is that just a psychological reaction or could you have picked up a few unwanted passengers through contact with your kids?

So, how do you tell if you have lice? Read on to find out.

What are lice?

Head lice are tiny parasitic insects that live on your scalp and in your hair, feeding on your blood. Unlike fleas, head lice cannot fly or jump. They make their way from one host to another by crawling. Also, head lice can only live on humans, not on animals or birds.

Lice can’t live away from their human food source for more than 48 hours, so you’re unlikely to pick up lice from bedding, furnishings, or clothing. The usual mechanism of transmission is through direct head-to-head contact.

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Adult lice are roughly the same size as a sesame seed and are brown-gray or tan in color. Nits look like flecks of dandruff or dirt in the hair. They’re firmly attached to the hair shaft close to the scalp with a gluey substance secreted by the female louse when she lays her eggs.

The nit shells remain stuck to the hair after the nymphs have hatched, becoming more visible as the hair grows, taking the nit shells with it.

What are the symptoms of head lice?

A head lice infestation might not be noticeable for up to six weeks following your initial contact with an infected person.

You won’t easily see head lice in your hair, but there are some particular signs of a head lice infestation that you should look out for:

  • The first indication that you have head lice is a tickling feeling on your scalp as if something is crawling through your hair.
  • Your scalp will begin to itch. The itching feeling is caused by the body’s reaction to the louse’s saliva entering your bloodstream as the insect feeds.
  • Look carefully behind your ears and around your hairline for small clusters of red, itchy spots. Lice favor these areas because it’s a warm, dark environment that’s perfect for feeding in.
  • If you scratch the lice bites, the skin in these areas may become infected, leaving you with weeping, scabby spots.
  • Once the infestation takes hold, you may notice tiny white flecks (nits) around the roots of your hair. If the white specks don’t brush out, they are most likely nits, rather than dirt or scurf.

If you have any of the above symptoms, you may have head lice. You’ll need to confirm your fears by carrying out a visual inspection.

How to visually check for lice

Bearing in mind how tiny lice are, visually checking for them is not as easy as it sounds.

You’ll need:

  • a bright light
  • a magnifying glass
  • a nit comb
  • white paper towel
  • a willing assistant (and lice hunter!)

What to do:

  • Begin by wetting your hair. Lice can’t move through wet hair as quickly as they can through dry hair, making them easier to spot. 
  • Ask your assistant to use the nit comb to part your wet hair.
  • Place your head under a bright light away from shadows.
  • Ask your assistant to look through a magnifying glass onto your head to see if they can see anything moving among the hair roots.
  • Wipe a white paper towel over the hair. Dandruff and scurf will disappear immediately, but nits will remain visible as slightly darker dots on the white towel. If you see something moving on the paper towel, that’s an adult louse.

Final confirmation that you have head lice

If you’re still not sure if you have head lice, take a trip to your family doctor and ask for a check-up.

It’s a good idea to take your kids too; if the whole family has lice, you’ll need to use a suitable treatment to stop the infestation in its tracks.

Wrapping it up:

So, do you have head lice?

If you have …

  • an itchy scalp,
  • a feeling of something crawling through your hair,
  • clusters of tiny, red bumps that itch,
  • flecks of white dandruff-like matter in your hair that won’t easily brush out,

… then you probably have head lice.