Head Lice (Pediculosis)

What are head lice?

Head lice are tiny insects that feed on blood from the human scalp and lay their eggs on hair. Head lice are very common, particularly in children. There is no connection between head lice and the length of someone's hair or the cleanliness of the hair, body, or home or school environment.

The medical name for head lice is Pediculosis humanus capitis.

How do people get head lice?

The most common way to get head lice is head-to-head contact with a person who already has head lice. Head-to-head contact is common at home and school, in sports, on the playground, at sleepovers and at camp.

It is very uncommon, but possible, to get head lice from clothing or belongings containing lice or nits that have crawled or fallen from a person with head lice. Examples include:

  • Recently worn or used hats, scarves, coats, sports uniforms or items such as hair ribbons, barrettes, combs, brushes, towels, and stuffed animals.
  • Beds, sofas, pillows, or carpet. (The risk of getting head lice from a louse or nit that has fallen onto carpet or furniture is very small, however.)

Head lice cannot hop or jump, and they do not have wings, so they cannot fly.

You cannot catch head lice from dogs, cats, and other pets; head lice cannot survive on them.

Do head lice carry disease?

Head lice are not known to transmit any disease and therefore are not considered a health hazard. However, people with head lice sometimes develop bacterial infections from scratching the skin or scalp.

What is DHEC’s role in responding to head lice?

While head lice are certainly an annoyance and unpleasant, they are not known to carry or spread disease. As a result, they are not considered a medical or public health hazard. Although DHEC provides information and general guidance about head lice—since it is not a reportable condition and does not spread disease—DHEC does not have regulatory or enforcement oversight regarding how it is addressed by schools. Head lice policies are up to individual school districts in South Carolina. You may wish to contact your school district regarding how it handles instances of head lice.

Even though DHEC does not inspect, treat or conduct site visits in response to head lice complaints in homes or schools, we want to make sure that everyone has access to the information needed to help prevent head lice in their home.

What are the symptoms?

The most common sign of head lice is itching, but most people do not develop itching until after head lice have been present for several weeks. Other possible symptoms are a tickling feeling of something moving in the hair and sores on the head caused by scratching. Irritability and difficulty sleeping may also be signs, since head lice are most active in the dark.

Who is at risk for head lice?

In the United States, head lice are common among preschool children attending child care centers, elementary school age children, and household members of children with head lice.

  • Girls get head lice more often than boys, and women more than men.
  • While it is possible for African-Americans to get head lice, they rarely do. This may be because the claws of the head louse found most frequently in the United States are better adapted for grasping the shape and width of some types of hair, but not others.

How do you treat (get rid of) head lice?

Many head lice medications are available over-the-counter. Your health care provider may prescribe others.



Health Infectious Diseases