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Alternative namesLice - head; Nits; Pediculosis capitis - head lice
Head lice are tiny insects that live on the scalp. They can be spread by close contact with other people.
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
There are three common types of lice: head lice, body lice , and pubic lice (also called crabs). Head lice infect the scalp hair and are easiest to see at the nape of the neck and over the ears. Tiny eggs can be seen on the hair, appearing much like flakes of dandruff , but stuck firmly to the hair shaft instead of flaking off the scalp.
Lice can also live on clothing, carpets, or bedding.
Head lice are spread easily and cause intense itching, but they do not lead to a serious medical problem. Lice are more common in close, overcrowded living conditions. Lice spread readily among school children.
Having lice is NOT an indicator of poor hygiene or low social status.
Signs and tests
Lice can be seen and identified by looking closely. Using disposable gloves, inspect the head of anyone who might have been exposed to lice under a bright light. Full sun or the brightest lights in your home during daylight hours work well. A magnifying glass can also help.
Part the hair all the way down to the scalp in very small sections, looking both for moving lice and eggs (nits). Inspect the entire head this way. Look closely around the nape of the neck and ears, the most common locations for eggs. Treatment is recommended if even one egg is found.
The infestation may be confined to the scalp or may include the surface of the body ( body lice ), including the groin area ( pubic lice ).
Lotions and shampoos containing permethrin are usually effective. They are available over-the-counter. If these do not work, other products are available by prescription. The medications used for lice are insecticides. Therefore, they should be used exactly as directed and no more frequently than recommended.
Certain products loosen the bond between the egg sack (nit) and hair shaft so that eggs can be easily removed. Remove the eggs with a nit comb. Removing eggs may prevent reinfection if the medication fails to kill all of them.
Treat children and adults with lice promptly and thoroughly. Wash all clothes and bed linens. This also helps prevent head lice from spreading to others.
Lice are usually killed with proper treatment. However, reinfestation is possible, especially if the source of the infestation is not corrected (for example, a classroom with many infected children).
Some people will develop a secondary skin infection from scratching.
Calling your health care provider
First, apply home treatment. Call your health-care provider if symptoms continue after home treatment, or if you develop an irritation from the medicine.
Update Date: 12/2/2003Jacqueline A. Hart, M.D., Department of Internal Medicine, Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Boston, Ma., and Senior Medical Editor, A.D.A.M., Inc. Previously reviewed by Philip L. Graham III, M.D., Department of Pediatrics, Children's Hospital of New York, Columiba Universit, New York, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network (1/22/2002).
Last updated: Tue, 06 Jan 2009 00:20:03 GMT