What are lice?

Lice are tiny insects that can infest the skin at various locations on the body. Lice infection is characterized by intense itching.

Lice are highly contagious, spreading from person to person by close body contact, shared clothes, and other items (such as hats, hairbrushes, and combs). There are three types of human lice:

  • Head lice
  • Body lice
  • Pubic lice

Facts about lice

Head lice:

  • Head lice are seen mostly in child care settings and among school-aged children.
  • The child usually has itching of the scalp.
  • Lice, or lice eggs (called nits), can usually be seen on the scalp or in the hair. There may be associated red rashes behind the ears and on the neck.

Body lice:

  • Body lice are usually seen in people with poor hygiene.
  • Body lice are rare in children.
  • Body lice cause severe itching.
  • With body lice, in some cases lice and eggs can be found in the seams of clothing.

Pubic lice:

  • Pubic lice are very contagious and can be transmitted through sexual contact and less commonly by sharing contaminated items, such as towels and clothes.
  • Pubic lice most often affect the pubic hair, but can also affect the hair on other parts of the body as well as eyebrows and eyelashes.
  • Itching of the affected area is a common symptom of pubic lice.

How are lice diagnosed?

The eggs laid by lice are usually visible to the naked eye, making it easy for your child's doctor to diagnose.

Treatment for lice

Specific treatment for lice will be determined by your child's doctor based on:

  • Your child's age, overall health, and medical history
  • Extent of the infestation
  • Your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the infestation

Lice are treatable. Treatment may include:

  • For head lice and pubic lice:
    • Application of a medicated cream rinse or shampoo is usually effective treatment for head and/or pubic lice. Specific instructions need to be followed. Discuss this with your child's doctor. Examples of medicated cream rinses or shampoos include:
    • Depending on the specific treatment selected:
    • Nits may need to be removed from the hair with a fine-tooth comb.
    • Combs and brushes should be soaked in hot water with the medicated shampoo for a period of at least 15 minutes.
    • Children can return to school or day care the day following their first treatment for head lice.
  • For body lice:
    • Medications are usually not needed to treat body lice.
    • Treatment for body lice usually consists of improving hygiene and washing clothes.
    • Bed sheets and blankets should be washed in hot water and dried in a hot dryer.
  • Check all other household members closely to see if anyone else needs to be treated.  
  • Wash all bedding and clothing in hot water (130° F or 54° C), or seal items that cannot be washed in a plastic bag for two weeks.