Head lice are tiny insects that live in hair. Nits are the empty egg cases attached to hair thathead licehatch from.

Head lice are a common problem, particularly in school children aged4-11.

They're largely harmless, but can live in the hair for a long time if not treated and canbe irritating and frustrating to deal with.

This page covers:

Spotting head lice

Getting rid of head lice and nits

Howyou get head lice


How to spothead lice

Head licecan bedifficult to spot, even when the head is closely inspected.

They're very small whitishor grey-brown insects that range from the size of a pinhead tothe size of a sesame seed.

The only way to be sure someone has head lice is to find a live louseby combing their hair with a special fine-toothed comb. This is called detection combing.

Less reliable signs of head lice include:

  • small white eggs or nits (egg cases) in the hair behind the earsor at back of the neck see image above
  • an itchy scalp
  • a rashon the back of the neck
  • feeling as thoughsomething is moving in the hair

How to getrid of head lice and nits

Treatments to get rid of head lice are available to buy from pharmacies, supermarkets and online. You don't usually need to see your GP.

The main treatments are:

  • lotions or sprays that kill head licethese can be very effective, but some aren't suitable for pregnant or breastfeeding women, or for children under two
  • removing head lice with a specially designed comb this is suitable for everyone and relatively inexpensive, but needs to be repeated several times and can take a long time to do thoroughly

A pharmacist can advise you about thetreatments available if you're not sure which is best for you or your child.

Make sure you carefully follow the instructions that come withthe treatment you choose.

Theyclimb from one person's hair to another's.

Head lice:

  • can't fly, jump or swim
  • are very unlikely to be spread by objects such as hats, combs and pillows
  • don't have a preference for dirty, clean, short or long hair
  • only affectpeople and can't be caught from animals

Once detached from the hair, head lice will usually die within 12-24 hours.

Preventing head lice

It's very difficult to prevent head lice.

You may want to consider regulardetection combing for example,on a weekly basis if you're concerned about your children or yourself.

Lotions and sprays don't prevent head lice andshould only be used if a live louse has been found in your or your child's hair.

Staying off work or school and washing clothing and bedding on a hot wash is unnecessary, asit's unlikely to help prevent the spread of head lice.

Content supplied by the NHS Website

Medically Reviewed by a doctor on 28 Nov 2016