Symptoms of Head Lice

Itching is a common symptom of lice.

Understanding the symptoms of head lice is the first step toward successful and easy treatment of this unwanted parasite.

About Head Lice

Head lice and nits are parasites that feed on human blood through the scalp. While they do not carry diseases, a lice infestation can be uncomfortable and chronic head lice can lead to skin discomfort and scalp sores from the constant irritation of lice. Individuals with sharper sensitivity to lice may experience more painful symptoms and irritation, and having lice can lead to embarrassment and social anxiety.

Recognizing the Symptoms of Head Lice

There are several common symptoms of head lice, including:

  • Itchy Scalp: Sweat, dandruff, and dirt can all make a scalp itch, but constant itching, particularly behind the ears and at the back of the neck even after the hair has been washed, may be an indication of head lice.
  • Visible Lice: Nits cling to hairs close to the scalp and appear to be small white dots that are not easily removed. Adult lice may be seen moving on the scalp under a bright light or magnifying glass.
  • Head Sores: Open sores on the scalp are a result of prolonged itching that frequently indicates the presence of head lice.
  • Swollen Lymph Nodes: If the lymph nodes at the front and back of the neck are swollen, that may indicate a deeper allergic reaction to lice.
  • Movement in Hair: While lice are too small to strongly move hair, and individual who continually feels a moving or tickling sensation on their scalp may need to be examined for lice.
  • Scalp Redness: A mild red rash on the scalp can indicate allergic reactions to louse bites or excessive scratching.
  • Red Bumps: Another type of reaction to lice can produce small red bumps on the scalp, neck, and shoulders of infected individuals. Left untreated, these bumps can exude fluid or pus.
  • Black Dandruff: Normal dandruff is clear or dusty, while dark or black dandruff is actually louse droppings. This dandruff may be visible on clothing, pillowcases, or found on the scalp.
  • Irritability: Mood swings, particularly negative ones, are one way the body indicates problems such as parasitic infestations, including lice.

It is possible for an individual to have head lice and exhibit no visible symptoms for up to three months as the infestation grows and matures. Understanding the different symptoms, however, can help make detecting lice easier so they can be treated more quickly.

Treating Head Lice

There are many ways to treat head lice, and some are more effective than others depending on the severity of the infestation and the individual's body chemistry and personal preference. Popular treatments include:

Clean all pillows.
  • Medicated Shampoos: Basic lice shampoo is available over the counter from most pharmacies, while stronger shampoos are available by prescription from pediatricians and dermatologists.
  • Nit Combs: Fine mesh combs, available in plastic or metal, can be used to remove lice eggs. One combing will not remove all lice, and repeated combings should be done daily for a minimum of 10 days to ensure complete eradication of the parasites.
  • Hair Accessory Cleaning: To prevent a recurring infestation, all possible sources of lice contamination should be thoroughly cleaned. This includes hats, pillowcases, bedding, combs, brushes, and any hair bows or other hair accessories that have been used recently.
  • Natural Remedies: Some individuals report success using more natural treatments, such as tea tree oil, olive oil shampoos, or mayonnaise to treat head lice. While there are no scientific studies to determine the effectiveness of such techniques, they may be suitable options for some individuals.

Lice Prevention

The best way to combat head lice is to prevent an infestation from occurring. Head lice are spread only through direct contact - they cannot "jump" from one person to another - and so all contact with potentially contaminated sources should be eliminated. Children should be taught never to share hats, brushes, or hair towels with anyone, and sharing hair bows or clips should also be discouraged. While head lice is not a result of poor personal hygiene, regular hair washing can help minimize any infestations. If a head lice outbreak is reported at a school or day care facility, parents should immediately inspect their children for any symptoms of head lice and take appropriate action for preventing lice.


Head lice can be irritating and embarrassing, but by recognizing the symptoms of these parasites it is possible to minimize their effects and enjoy lice-free hair.

Symptoms of Head Lice