An itchy scalp is a bothersome condition, and frequently when the scalp begins to itch one of the first concerns which come to mind are lice. Especially if you have children of school age who are in school or camp, and more so if you have recently received a lice notice from school or day care or know of a lice outbreak in your community. Itchy scalp is the most common symptom of lice, and the first thing which comes to mind is “Do I have lice?” It is important to know the difference between dandruff which results from dry scalp, and nits which are eggs laid by lice during infestation. It is also important to identify lice and nits early, as lice are very contagious.
LICE vs. DANDRUFF & DRY SCALP
Dandruff (medical term seborrheic dermatitis) impacts more than half of adults and children. Unlike lice, dandruff is not contagious, and is caused by the excessive dead skin cells on the scamp, the dry skin can be uncomfortable, itch and flake off. Oily scalp, over use of certain products and genetic predisposition can cause a scalp to dry or oily, which in turn becomes dandruff. Lice and nits are sometimes confused for dandruff because the dandruff causes the skin on the scalp to itch, become scaly and results in skin flaking off, visibly showing white flakes among hair strands. These white flakes can be mistaken for nits (nits are the eggs laid by lice and they can be mistaken for dandruff).
Lice, unlike dandruff, are insects, which are parasites since they feed on human blood and are highly contagious since lice travel easily from head to head. Lice are bugs which come in a variety of shades ranging from dark gray to light gray or brown. The reason lice are associated with an itching sensation of the scalp, is because when lice feed, they suck on blood through the scalp, and this results in lice related scalp irritation. Also, when lice crawl around the scalp it makes the scalp feel itchy. When lice infest the human hair, lice rapidly will lay eggs (known as nits). Annually millions of U.S. kids are impacted by lice outbreaks and get lice infestation, since lice can easily travel between students at schools or camps and at home between family members. Head-to-head contact is not the only means lice spread, they can also crawl onto shared surfaces or items and then make their way into a new head of hair.
HOW TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LICE AND DANDRUFF
The most straightforward way to distinguish between lice and dandruff is that nits (eggs laid by lice insect) stick to the hair with a glue-like bond agent and do not easily brush out of hair. Nits can only be removed using professional lice combs and nit combs. If a particle easily brushes out or you can shake it out of your hair, it is most likely dandruff.
IMPORTANT LICE FACTS:
1. Lice do not fly, jump or swim, and cannot survive without human contact on furniture, sheets, rugs longer than 48 hours.
2. Nits are lice eggs , because they are light gray or white, nits and dandruff are often confused. Nits are small, white or light gray and rice shaped. Lice deposit nits on hair strands, usually about an inch from the scalp and at the base of the hair shaft.
3. When nits hatch, baby lice, known as nymphs are born. The nymphs are tiny and light colored baby insects, they grow into adult lice in 7-10 days. The shells of hatched nits will remain in the hair until removed.
4. Once nymphs reach maturity level, they begin to lay more nits, or eggs.
5. Adult lice are insects, which live on the human scalp and feed by sucking blood from the human scalp. A louse has six legs, each leg with a claw, they range in color from lighter tan to darker. Adult female lice lay about five new nits per day.
6. Lice live for 30 days on human scalp and reproduce quickly.
Images from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
LICE VS. NITS
Lice Treatment and Lice Prevention Kit
Nits known as lice eggs are usually light in color, nits can be light gray, white, tan, and brown. As mentioned above, nits are glued to hair strands about an inch from the scalp. During lice outbreaks, parents often realize their child has lice infestation only after a few weeks of lice activity. This is because lice are hard to see, and large numbers of nits become visible after lice have been actively laying their eggs. We recommend using Lice Prevention Products during school season, as lice infestations and spread of lice is common among school age children.
Lice Treatment Products are important to have on hand to address lice outbreaks immediately.
LICE VS DANDRUFF
Lice are often associated with dirty hair, and many parents wrongfully assume that frequent hair washing will prevent lice. However, lice is spread easily among children at schools because day cares, camps and schools are contained in closed environments where children play close together and have lots of head to head contact. Numerous studies point out that lice outbreaks are most prevalent in schools and camps.
Dandruff unlike lice is not a contagious condition. According to a study published in Journal of Investigative dandruff is the result of following factors: dry scalp, reaction to excessive scalp oil production, yeast growth, and product reactions.
TELLING DANDRUFF AND LICE APART
A common symptom of both lice and dandruff is experiencing an itchy scalp, however the most important differences between lice and dandruff are:
What lice and nits look like:
- Lice are insects, and they move on the scalp or when lice falls out of the hair on the surface it will continue to crawl.
- Tiny lice eggs (nits) are attached to hair strands approximately 1 inch from the scalp.
- Nits will not fall out of the hair and have to be pulled off the hair strands with fingertips or combed out with a lice comb or a nit comb.
- Dandruff are flakes of dry skin attached to the scalp or flaking off the scalp and loosely present in the hair.
What lice feel like:
- Lice are tiny insects and when they move around the scalp, you can feel the lice crawling. Lice crawling results in an itching sensation. During lice infestation, lice suck blood from the human scalp to survive. These lice bites result in scalp itching as well.
What dandruff looks like:
- Dry itchy scalp with flaky skin.
- Dry flakes of skin, usually white in color, which shake off and fall easily from the hair.
- An oily scalp also results in dandruff.
- Scalp with scaly skin
What dandruff feels like:
- A dry itchy scalp, with pieces of dry flakes found in the hair
DETECTING LICE AND DANDRUFF
Frequent head checks before bath or shower, help detect lice and any dandruff in a timely manner. While dandruff is easier to spot as white flakes of dead skin cells appear in the hair, lice are harder to identify especially to an untrained eye, which is why professional lice screening and lice checks are most reliable.
During head lice check, professionals will examine the hair under a bright light, dividing hair into sections, and utilize a lice comb to comb through the hair and remove any dandruff or debris that could be mistaken for lice. Paying close attention to hair strand portions near the scalp to see if any nits are stuck, or lice (small wingless, six-legged insects) moving around the scalp and hair. Most common areas where lice are found are behind the ears, the nape of the neck, and near the hairline.
Dandruff shampoos and conditioners available over the counter usually allow for successful at home dandruff treatments. Natural and safe home remedies for dandruff are eucalyptus, neem and tea tree oils.
Tea tree oil is an effective dandruff treatment. Few drops of tea tree oil can be added to your regular shampoo. An over the counter shampoo with tea tree oil is a popular dandruff solution.
Related: Tea Tree Oil Use to Prevent Lice
Eucalyptus oil has anti-fungal and antimicrobial properties and can be added to your shampoo to fight dandruff.
Neem Oil alleviates dandruff and dry scalp by stabilizing the scalp’s pH level.
How to treat lice at home
Most at home remedies for lice simply do not work. In order to fully get rid of lice, not only do the actual lice bugs need to be removed, but their nits must all be removed from the hair. It is most effective to contact a professional lice technician or a lice professional. Since lice spread quickly, it is very important to take immediate action and follow through with a full lice treatment plan to get rid of a lice infestation.
Questions About Lice?
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