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Body Lice

- Not as common as head and pubic lice -

Summary: Body lice occur in crowded and unsanitary conditions where clothes are not regularly washed. Body lice infestations can also spread a disease called epidemic typhus in these situations. Eggs, or nits, of body lice are laid on clothing unlike the related head and pubic lice which attach their eggs to individual hairs.

Jack DeAngelis, PhD
OSU Ext. Entomologist (ret.) my resume

Body lice identification

Body lice are small (1-3 mm; 1/16"-1/8") blood-sucking insects that closely resemble head lice, to which they are related (see What are Head Lice? for a photograph of an adult louse). Body lice, unlike head lice however, live in clothing and lay their eggs (nits) on cloth fibers (see photo right). Body lice move from clothing to the skin surface to feed. Because body lice eggs are attached to clothing, these lice are generally not a concern where clothes are routinely washed.

Severe outbreaks of body lice, and associated louse-borne diseases, have historically occurred during wars, in prisons, on crowded ships, and under similar crowded and unsanitary situations but are less common today.

body lice nits

Body louse eggs, or nits, on clothing (highly magnified, individual cloth fibers are visible). The nit on the left is older as indicated by its darker cap (left end of nit).

Body lice eggs, or nits, in clothing

Eggs, or nits, of all human lice (head lice, body lice and pubic lice) are about 1 mm long. Nits of body lice are laid in clothing, attached to cloth fibers, whereas head and pubic lice attach their eggs to hairs (see photo above).

Nits need body heat in order to hatch which generally takes seven to ten days. If infested clothes are not worn, body lice eggs won't hatch and may die. Lice molt through several immature stages before becoming adults.

Treating body lice

Body lice can be completely controlled with regular washing of clothes in hot water and detergent. There is no need for insecticides. During conditions of war or natural disaster, however, "de-lousing" with insecticides like malathion and DDT has been used to curb outbreaks of typhus and other diseases.

Symptoms of body lice & typhus

Body lice bite to get blood and the bite leaves a red, itchy lesion. Body lice infestations have also been associated with a form of the disease typhus called epidemic, or louse-borne, typhus which is caused by the bacterium Rickettsia prowazeki. Disease-causing bacteria can be found in louse droppings which may then be scratched into the skin causing infection. Symptoms of epidemic typhus include severe headache, a high fever, cough, rash, muscle pain, chills, falling blood pressure, stupor, sensitivity to light, and delirium. In addition, chronic body lice infestations, alone, can lead to malaise and feeling "lousy".

Similar, blood-feeding, pests

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Jack DeAngelis, PhD,  , email:  [email protected]

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