In my years of battling tiny invaders, I’ve seen it all. But lice? They’re in a league of their own.

Picture this: One moment, your family’s living life as usual. The next, you’re all scratching your scalps like there’s no tomorrow. It’s as if these little critters materialized out of thin air.

But here’s the kicker — they didn’t. Lice may seem to appear suddenly, but trust me, their arrival isn’t as mysterious as you might think. They’re not your typical household pest, mind you. These wingless wanderers have their own unique way of setting up shop on your head.

Now, I’m about to share some insider knowledge. Stick with me, and you’ll learn what makes you a prime target for these pesky parasites and how you can keep them at bay. Because in this line of work, prevention is worth its weight in gold.

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What Are Lice?

When people think of lice, they’re thinking of the most common variant in the United States: Head lice.

Head lice are parasitic insects, which need to feed on human blood to survive. They do this by roosting (yes, I said roosting) on people’s scalps with specially designed hooks on their feet, which cling to strands of hair.

According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, there are 6,000,000-12,000,000 cases of head lice in the United States per year, so there is a pretty good chance you’ll be running into these little suckers at least once in your lifetime.

What Do Lice Look Like?

Lice live in three life stages: nits, nymphs, and adults.

The nits are the small lice eggs, which are no larger than a knot in a strand of hair. The nymphs are slightly smaller than the adults, and the adults are tan or gray or white. An adult louse is comparable to a sesame seed, and the females are slightly larger than the males. You might not be able to see them on your head unless you detect the movement, and even then you need to concentrate. Lice have six legs and segmented bodies.

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How Long Do Lice Live?

Although they are a nuisance, lice do not live very long. Each adult louse lives for roughly one month, or 30 days, on a person’s head.

The main problem is that they reproduce quickly. A single female louse can lay six eggs a day, which means two lice (one male and one female) can create 180 nuisances feeding on your head.

On the bright side, lice cannot live away from a human scalp. If a louse is plucked from your head or falls out, it will die within nit comb to remove them.

Lice cannot fly or jump— they move by crawling. This means that, if you remove them, they cannot find their way back to your head without direct contact.

Do Lice Spread Disease?

The good news is that the common head louse does not spread any known diseases.

Their main side effects are irritation and some light bleeding from the bites. Many shampoos and lice treatments include soothing ingredients to help combat the irritability.

If you have body lice, which are the lice that appear on other parts of the body, including the pubic region, then you might have a problem.

Body lice can spread several infectious diseases and pose a problem for you and your families. Body lice are not as common in the United States, but can spread damaging diseases like epidemic typhus, relapsing fever, and trench fever. If you have body lice, you should seek treatment immediately.


So How Do Lice Spread?

Lice seem to affect everyone and ARE NOT a sign of uncleanliness.

Lice often spread in public places where humans gather around one another. Indeed, some of the most common places you might pick up an infestation are schools, work, stores, and mass transit areas like subway stations.

Basically, if lice can get to your hair, then you can develop an infestation.

Although they are common, there are only two major ways to spread lice.

This is the simplest and most frequent way to get lice.

Lice cannot fly or jump, so they move when people bring their heads close to one another or come in contact with each other’s hair.

Hair is the crucial factor, because it is what lice live on. This is part of why lice infestations are found more often on females rather than males. Some of the most commonplace incidents which cause lice transference are:

  • Children playing together
  • Hugging a friend or relative
  • Having someone braid your hair

Despite some misconceptions, it’s hard to get lice from touching another person’s clothes or possessions.

This kind of contact needs to happen almost immediately for lice to spread because each louse only survives for 1-2 days without a human host. Some of the ways to accidentally pick up lice from indirect contact are:

  • Sharing hats, scarves, or items of clothing
  • Sharing hairbrushes or combs
  • Sleeping in the same bed
  • Sitting or laying on furniture that an infested person recently left

Again, it’s very unlikely that you’ll spread lice by putting someone else’s hat on or sharing a helmet.


What Are the Symptoms of Head Lice?

As someone who’s seen countless cases, I can tell you that spotting a lice infestation early is crucial. Here are the telltale signs to watch out for:

  1. Intense itching: This is often the first and most common symptom. The scalp becomes irritated due to the lice’s saliva when they feed.
  2. Tickling sensation: Many people describe feeling like something is moving in their hair. That’s because, well, something is.
  3. Visible lice or nits: If you look closely, especially behind the ears and near the neckline, you might spot adult lice or their eggs (nits) attached to hair shafts.
  4. Red bumps: The scalp, neck, and shoulders may develop small, red bumps due to lice bites.
  5. Difficulty sleeping: Lice are most active in the dark, which can lead to restless nights and increased irritability.
  6. Scratching marks: Persistent itching can lead to small wounds or infections on the scalp.

Remember, not everyone experiences all of these symptoms. Some people, especially those with a first-time infestation, might not show any signs for several weeks. That’s why regular checks, especially for school-age children, are so important.

If you suspect a lice infestation, don’t panic. Take a deep breath, grab a fine-toothed comb, and start inspecting. The sooner you catch it, the easier it is to treat.


But Where Do Lice Come From?

Now that you know how to identify lice and realize that they are very good at spreading from person to person, you’re probably asking “Where do they come from in the first place?”.

Where do they live when they aren’t on people?

The Hard Truth About Lice

The short answer is: Lice come from other people.

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Lice are parasitic and cannot live for long without a host. It’s almost impossible to pick one up without touching another person’s hair.

Lice have survived for centuries by living on people and then transferring to others.

The burial objects of Ancient Egypt even include lice combs to be carried into the next life.

At the end of the day, lice don’t come from another dimension: They come from other humans.

How To Prevent Lice

If you want to stop a lice outbreak before it begins, you have several options.

Unfortunately, there is no single solution that will absolutely stop any outbreak. But if you are worried, and especially if you have children who interact with others, you can use one of the following methods.

  1. Use a daily lice repelling shampoo which uses mint or rosemary extracts.
  2. Keep your hair away from the hair of others.
  3. Regularly wash your clothes and sheets.
  4. Make sure that anyone who comes into your home does not have lice.

Make sure to check out our detailed guide on getting rid of head lice if you want to learn more about ways to kill these pests.


Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to get head lice?

Head lice infestations can occur almost instantly upon contact with an infected person or item. A single louse or a few eggs (nits) transferred to your hair can start an infestation. However, it may take a few weeks before symptoms like itching become noticeable, as the lice population needs time to grow.

The speed of infestation can vary depending on factors such as the number of lice transferred and how quickly they reproduce in their new environment.


How do you prevent a head lice infestation?

Preventing head lice involves minimizing head-to-head contact, especially in places like schools or playgrounds. Avoid sharing personal items like hats, scarves, combs, or hair accessories. Regularly inspect family members’ heads, especially children, for early signs of lice.

Consider using lice-repelling human hair products containing ingredients like tea tree oil or rosemary. After potential exposure, wash and dry clothes and bedding on high heat. While these measures can reduce risk, complete prevention is challenging due to lice’s contagious nature.


Who is at risk for body lice?

Body lice primarily affects individuals living in crowded, unsanitary conditions with limited access to bathing facilities and clean clothing. This includes homeless people, refugees in camps, and those in extreme poverty. People who can’t change or wash their clothes regularly are at higher risk.

Unlike head lice, body lice are less common in developed countries and are often associated with poor hygiene and living conditions. In rare cases, they can affect people in close contact with infested individuals, such as family members or caregivers.


Where do head lice originate from?

Head lice have been human parasites for thousands of years, evolving alongside us. They don’t come from animals or the environment — they can only survive on human hosts. Historically, lice have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs and on prehistoric mummies. In modern times, head lice infestations typically originate from direct contact with an infested person or, less commonly, from sharing personal items with someone who has lice.

They don’t spontaneously generate or come from dirt — they always spread from one infested person to another.


Can head lice be a sign of uncleanliness?

No, head lice is not a sign of poor hygiene or uncleanliness. This is a common misconception. Lice can infest anyone, regardless of their cleanliness habits, social status, or living conditions. They are equal-opportunity parasites that thrive in clean hair just as well as in unwashed hair.

In fact, lice can sometimes be more difficult to spot in very clean hair. The presence of head lice is simply an indication of exposure to someone else with lice, not a reflection of personal hygiene. It’s important to dispel this myth to reduce stigma and encourage open communication about lice infestations.


Final Thoughts

Ultimately, lice come from other people. They pose no serious risk to your or loved ones, but can be a nuisance and cause scalp irritation. The only way to truly prevent an infestation is to avoid other people, but that would be an awkward and unpleasant way to live. If you are worried, use a regular lice repelling shampoo and take regular precautions to stop lice before they stop you.

Think you might need professional help with your lice problem? Use the form below to connect with local pest control pros:

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Article Update Log
7/12/2024
Reviewed for accuracy, cost data, industry best practices, and expert advice by Coty Perry.
Editorial Contributors
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Ed Spicer

Ed has been working in the pest control industry for years helping 1,000's of homeowners navigate the world of insect and rodent management.

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Coty Perry

Expert Writer & Reviewer

Coty Perry is a lawn and garden writer for Today’s Homeowner. He focuses on providing homeowners with actionable tips that relate to the “Average Joe” who is looking to achieve a healthier and greener lawn. When he isn’t writing he can almost always be found coaching youth football or on some trail in Pennsylvania in search of the next greatest fishing hole.

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