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Reviewed/Revised Apr 2022 | Modified Sep 2022
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Topic Resources

What are lice?

Lice are tiny insects that live on your body or in your clothes and bedding. There are 3 types of lice: head, body, and pubic.

  • Lice are spread by close contact with people who have lice on their skin or on their personal items, such as clothes or bedding

  • The main symptom caused by lice is severe itching

  • Doctors diagnose lice when they see them or their eggs in your hair

  • Doctors usually treat lice with special shampoos, creams, or lotions and have you clean your clothes and bedding

A Close-Up Look at Lice

Three types of lice infest the body. Lice measure up to 1/8 inch (3 millimeters) across.

A Close-Up Look at Lice

Head lice

  • Head lice live in your hair and on your scalp—you can see them and their eggs (called nits) in your hair

  • They can easily spread from person to person, especially if you share brushes, hats, and other things

  • Head lice are most common in girls ages 5 to 11, but anyone can get them

  • Being clean does not prevent getting head lice

  • The main symptom is an itchy scalp

Body lice

Pubic lice

  • Pubic lice live in the hair in your groin and bottom, but they can also live in the hair on your chest, thigh, and face

  • Pubic lice are often called crabs

  • They usually spread during sex, but they can also spread by sharing towels, bedding, or clothes

  • Children can get this kind of lice from close contact with an adult who has pubic lice

What are the symptoms of lice?

Lice usually cause severe itching.

Head lice can be hard to find. It's usually easier to see their whitish eggs (nits). Nits are attached to some of your hairs near where they grow out of your scalp. You may have a few nits or a lot.

Body lice bites can cause small, red, pinpoint holes in your skin, usually on your shoulders, bottom, and belly area.

Pubic lice bites may cause bluish spots on your groin or other places they have bitten. Pubic lice are usually easier to find than head lice.

How can doctors tell if I have a lice?

Doctors diagnose lice by finding them or their eggs (nits) on your body or clothing.

For head lice, they carefully comb through your wet hair to look for live lice. For pubic lice, they just look at your groin hair. For body lice, they look at your clothing, particularly along the seams.

How do doctors treat lice?

Doctors treat lice differently depending on what kind of lice you have. But for all types of lice, your doctor will ask you to:

  • Replace, wash, or dry clean your clothes and wash your bedding in hot water and laundry soap

  • Place anything that can't be washed in airtight plastic bags for 2 weeks to kill the lice

Head lice treatment

  • Doctors treat you and everyone in your household for head lice with special shampoos, creams, or lotions

  • You'll have to use the shampoos, creams, or lotions again 7 to 10 days later to kill any lice that hatched since the first treatment

  • If these treatments don't work, doctors may give you medicine by mouth

The treatments kill the lice eggs but don't remove them from your hair. To get rid of the eggs, you can use a special fine-tooth comb or carefully pick them out.

Doctors aren't sure that it's necessary to keep children with head lice home from school. Many schools have their own rules on this.

Body lice treatment

  • Doctors treat your symptoms, have you wash or dry clean your clothes and bedding, and ask you to keep yourself as clean as possible

Pubic lice treatment

  • Doctors treat pubic lice with special shampoos and creams and sometimes with medicine by mouth

  • Your sex partner will also need to get treatment

  • For lice on your eyelashes, you can use petroleum jelly for 8 to 10 days, take certain medicines or eye drops, or carefully remove the lice and their eggs

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