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head lice and body lice

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Head and body lice

Alternative Names 

Lice are small, grey, bugs. Head lice attach themselves to the hair shafts. Head lice causes itching and scratch marks on the scalp. Body lice actually live in the seams of clothing, not on the skin. The lice will leave the clothing to bite the infected person. The lice leave eggs, also called nits, attached to the hair shafts.

What is going on in the body? 
Head lice spreads by head-to-head contact, such as sharing hats and combs or sleeping next to another person. It is most common in school children. Becoming infected with head lice has nothing to do with poor hygiene. Body lice are common among people who are unable to wash their clothing regularly. This condition is sometimes called "vagabond's disease" and is typically seen in the homeless.

What are the signs and symptoms of the disease? 
Head lice may not be visible. The body lice are rarely found and then only in the seams of clothing. Nits, clear egg cases, attach to the hair shafts in head lice and attach to the seams of clothing in body lice.

Signs and symptoms of lice include:
  • itchy scalp with head lice and body sites with body lice
  • inflammation from the rubbing and scratching
  • bacterial infection
  • swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • nits that may look like dandruff or sand but can't be shaken off
What are the causes and risks of the disease? 
Causes and risks for lice include:
  • sharing of hats, combs, or headphones
  • wearing dirty clothing for weeks
What can be done to prevent the disease? 
To prevent lice, do not share headwear and wash clothing regularly.

How is the disease diagnosed? 
Lice is diagnosed when nits or lice are found on the body, on the hair shafts or in the clothes.

What are the long-term effects of the disease? 
Long-term effects can include
  • chronic itching and inflamed skin
  • severe long-term untreated cases of body lice can lead to loss of energy and infection
What are the risks to others? 
Both types of lice are highly contagious.

What are the treatments for the disease? 
  • Topical scalp application of permethrin, pyrethrins, or malathion for head lice. Nits need to be removed. Remove the dead nits by combing the hair with a fine-tooth comb or pull them out one by one.
  • Wash clothing in hot water of at least 54 degrees Celsius and use a hot dryer. Insecticides can be used to douse the clothing.
  • A child's room should be vacuumed. Combs and brushes should be soaked for 1 hour in a solution containing some anti-lice shampoo. Items that can't be washed, such as hats, coats and scarves, should be set in an airtight plastic bag for 3 weeks.
What are the side effects of the treatments? 
Resistance to head lice treatment is increasing. People need to make sure that all the lice have been killed. There are possible side effects from treatment shampoos including allergic reactions and rashes. It is important to use the shampoo as directed. If a person uses the shampoo too many times, it can be toxic and build up in the blood system.

What happens after treatment for the disease? 
After treatment, lice and nits should be gone. Remind a child not to share combs, brushes or hats. The child's school should be notified of head lice so other students can be checked. A doctor should be contacted if:
  • itching interferes with sleep
  • there is a rash that does not clear after 1 week of treatment
  • a rash clears and then returns
  • new eggs appear in the hair
  • any sores start to spread or look infected
How is the disease monitored? 
To monitor for lice, a person can recheck the hair shafts for nits. A doctor should be consulted if itching or redness persists after home treatment.

Author: Lynn West, MD
Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.

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