Body Lice

What are lice?

Lice are tiny wingless insects that live in the hairy parts of the human body. They are less than 1/8 inch long (2 to 3 millimeters), or about the size of a sesame seed.

Lice bite through the skin to suck blood. Lice attach their eggs, called nits, to hairs. The nits hatch after several days, making more lice.

Lice are not dangerous and don’t spread disease. However, their bites can cause itching and skin irritation.

How do I get body lice?

Lice can be passed from person to person through close body contact. The lice can live up to 3 days away from the body, so you can get lice from things like bed sheets, towels, and sleeping bags if someone infected with lice has used them in the past couple of days.

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptom is itching. The more lice you have, the more severe the itching. If there are only a few lice, you may have no symptoms.

Your skin may get red and irritated, especially if you are scratching your skin. You may have small, red, itchy bumps. Sometimes the areas that you have scratched can get infected.

Sometimes you may see the lice or nits. The nits look like tiny white dots attached to a hair, similar to dandruff. Unlike dandruff, the nits cannot be brushed or flicked off. They must be pulled off the hair with a fine-tooth comb or your fingers or fingernails.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you.

How is it treated?

Lice will not go away without proper treatment. Anti-lice products can be bought without a prescription and used to treat lice. Follow the directions on the package. Some products require a second treatment in 7 to 10 days, while others recommend repeating the treatment only if live lice are still found in the hair.

If a nonprescription product does not kill the lice, you may need a shampoo prescribed by your healthcare provider. Prescription shampoos contain medicines that may cause side effects. It is usually better to try one of the nonprescription products first.

If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, check with your healthcare provider before you use any type of anti-lice product.

After treatment with anti-lice medicine, the nits (eggs) will still be on your hair. You must remove all of the nits. Use a fine-tooth comb, tweezers, or your fingers to remove the nits. If you don’t remove all of the nits, it may be hard to tell if the treatment worked.

Check everyone living in your home and treat them if they have lice. Ask your healthcare provider to recommend the best treatment based on their ages and whether they are pregnant.

You need to remove lice from your clothing, towels, and bedding. Machine wash all items that you used in the last 3 days before you started treatment. Use hot water to wash the items. After washing, use the hot setting on your dryer for at least 20 minutes. Anything that cannot be washed this way needs to be dry cleaned. Clothing or other things, like stuffed animals or pillows, that may have lice but cannot be washed or dry cleaned should be sealed in a plastic bag for 2 weeks to kill the nits. Pets don’t need to be treated.

How can I help prevent body lice?

To help prevent body lice:

  • Vacuuming the floor and the furniture used by anyone who had lice may help keep the lice from spreading.
  • Avoid having close physical contact or sharing bedding or clothing with anyone who has lice.
  • Bathe regularly and wash clothing and bedding often.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-06-02
Last reviewed: 2014-06-02
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
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