DefinitionHead lice are tiny insect-like animals called arthropods that may live on the head and cause itching. ("Lice" is plural; the singular is "louse.") Head lice may also live in the eyebrows, eyelashes, and beard. However, sometimes infestations in these areas are from a related species called pubic lice.
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CausesHead lice spread by personal contact and by sharing combs, brushes, hats, and other personal items.
Risk FactorsThis condition is more common in young children. Factors that may increase the risk of lice include:
- Sharing combs, brushes, hats, and other personal items
- Personal contact with people who may have lice
SymptomsSome people with head lice do not have any symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they may include:
- Extreme itchiness
- Skin breaks and possible infection caused by scratching
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Bacterial infection—if scratching causes open areas on the scalp
DiagnosisYou will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Your head and scalp will be examined for lice and lice eggs (nits).Do not self-diagnose and self-treat head lice. Some treatments can cause irritation and should only be used by people who have the infestation.
TreatmentTreating head lice involves removing eggs and killing lice so that they can't continue to lay eggs. Treatment may be difficult. In some regions, lice have become resistant to many commonly used medications. Some experts recommend that treatment be given only when live adult lice are seen.Methods include:
- Applying over-the-counter shampoo containing the insecticide permethrin. It is important to use medications as directed. Retreatment at 7-10 days is usually required to kill any lice that hatch from unremoved eggs.
- Removing lice on the eyelashes, which may be difficult. Tweezers can be used to pick them off. Vaseline may be used to coat the eyelashes and kill the lice.
- Unless instructed otherwise, remove eggs manually with specially designed combs. Eggs stick firmly to hair. Over-the-counter products that loosen the eggs may help with removal.
Over-the-Counter MedicationMost cases of head lice can be treated with over-the-counter preparations. However, there is increasing resistance to the medications permethrin and pyrethrin in the United States. There are other treatments that may be effective, such as herbal remedies that contain coconut oil and anise.
Prescription MedicationPrescription creams or lotions may be prescribed to treat head lice. In certain cases, your doctor may prescribe lindane. Lindane is neurotoxic and carries a black box warning. Follow the instructions carefully. It should only be prescribed to patients who are unable to take other medications or who have not responded to them. According to the Food and Drug Administration’s warning, lindane can rarely cause serious side effects, including seizure and death. Those especially susceptible are infants, the elderly, children and adults weighing under 110 lbs, and individuals with other skin conditions. Lindane is toxic and should not be overused. Patients are given small amounts (1-2 ounces) of the shampoo or lotion and instructed to apply a thin layer and not to reapply. For more information, visit the US Food and Drug Administration website .
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