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Head lice

Head lice are tiny greyish-brown parasites that live on the scalp and are common among schoolchildren.

Head lice bite through the skin and live on the blood of the host, or person who has lice. Female lice lay eggs that firmly attach to hair shafts. 

Head lice infestation

Lice also can be found on the body (body lice) or in the pubic region (pubic lice).

Head lice are spread by direct head-to-head contact and sometimes by sharing items including combs, brushes, scarves, and hats with an infected person. Pubic lice (crabs) are spread by having close physical contact with someone who has them. They are most often spread by sexual contact, but they can also be spread through contact with infested clothing, bed linen and toilet seats.

Lice infestation has nothing to do with poor hygiene. Lice can affect people of all social classes.

What are the symptoms of lice?

Bites from lice can cause intense itching and irritation of the scalp or other area of the body where lice are present. Symptoms may not occur until at least two months after the lice begin living on the body. In cases of head lice, a person may develop a rash on the nape of the neck.

What is the treatment for lice?

Insecticides can be used to treat head lice by killing them. These products are available in lotion and shampoo form and can be purchased over-the-counter or with a prescription. Lice eggs can be more difficult to treat because the insecticide lotions do not penetrate the eggshell to get in to the developing louse. Therefore, it may be necessary to repeat the treatment after seven days to kill lice emerging from any eggs that survived the first application. Using a nit comb can help get rid of nits (empty egg shells).

Pubic lice are treated by washing the infested area with a special cream, lotion, or shampoo - available over the counter or on prescription. Follow the directions on the bottle.

How can lice be prevented?

The best way to prevent lice is to avoid close physical contact with someone who has lice. It may also help to avoid sharing combs, brushes, towels, scarves, hats, clothes, and other objects. Examine and treat all members of your household who are found to have live headlice. Close physical contacts of those with pubic lice should be treated even if they don't have symptoms.

If you find that your child has lice, you must notify your child's school, nursery, day care centre, or babysitter. It may help to wash all combs, brushes, hats, and towels after each shampoo if anyone in your family has lice. Some people recommend washing clothes, bed linen, and towels in the hot cycles of your washer and dryer. It is not necessary to spray your clothes or household objects with an insecticide.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on February 25, 2014

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