Although there are many types of lice, the head louse, or pediculus humanus capitis, is a parasitic insect that can be found on the head and, more rarely, the eyebrows and eyelashes of people. Head lice (the plural form of louse) feed on human blood several times a day and live close to the scalp to maintain their body temperature.
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Head lice come in three stages: egg, nymph, and adult. Eggs are often called lice nits, although many people refer to nits as the empty eggshells left behind by a hatched louse.
A head louse has six claws that allow it to crawl around from hair strand to hair strand. It can move from one head to another this way, which is why head-to-head contact is the primary way head lice are spread.
A head-lice infestation occurs when a female adult louse makes it onto a new head and lays eggs. When those eggs hatch, the lice will most likely stay on that head throughout the entire lice life cycle.
It can be hard to know if you have head lice. Since you can’t see your own scalp very easily, a head lice condition is hard to self-diagnose. The best thing to do is have someone check your head for you.
After looking at lice pictures or lice videos, have someone carefully lift sections of your hair and look near the scalp. Head lice are also commonly found behind the ears, near the neckline, and at the base of the head.
Look for anything crawling through the hair. These would most likely be adult lice. They are about the size of a sesame seed and vary in color depending on when they last ate, from a grayish-white, tan, or reddish-brown.
Look at the hair strands within about a quarter inch (~0.5 cm) of the scalp. See if you can find lice eggs (called nits) attached to individual hairs. If you see any, try pulling them off with your fingers. Nits are extremely small and will be glued pretty securely to the hair. So if you can’t pull them off easily, they are probably eggs and not dandruff.
If you feel like something is crawling through your hair, those might be lice as well. And if your scalp gets red and itchy, you may be allergic to lice bites.
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