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Head Lice Nits

- Nit-picking is the key to head lice control -

Summary: Lice eggs are called "nits". Head and pubic lice firmly attach their eggs, or nits, directly to body hairs. Removal of these nits, a process often called "nit-picking", is the single most important part of lice treatments.

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

Lice nits = lice eggs

The term "nit" is just another name for egg. Head lice and pubic lice attach nits to head or body hair (see photo right) near the skin surface. Nits are glued securely to hair shafts and can be very difficult to remove.

Nits of head lice and pubic lice need the warmth and high humidity that is found near human skin to develop properly. If nits are removed from this warm, moist environment they quickly die. This is one reason why it is less important to treat the whole house, bedding, furniture and so forth because lice in general don't survive for long away from their host.

misspellings: headlice, headlouse

                                    nits are attached to hairs

Lice nit (egg) glued to a hair.This nit is actually from a pubic louse but head lice nits look very similar. Body lice nits, are found in clothing, not attached to hair.

Effective lice control begins with thorough nit removal. Nits can be either physically removed or crushed. Lice combs do a good job of crushing nits in place or if lice combing is combined with one of the nit-loosening lotions you can actually remove nits without pulling hair out! See Selecting The Best Lice Comb for more information.

Identifying dead nits vs. live nits

When young lice hatch they leave behind the empty nit shell still attached the hair shaft. This empty shell can remain attached for weeks, or even months, so as the hair grows the empty shell moves further and further from the scalp surface. Therefore when nits are found any that are further than about a 1/4" away from the skin may have already hatched or is dead. Be cautious however because some very recent research found that in warm climates lice will occasionally lay viable eggs further out on the hair shaft. Color may be a better way to distinguish empty or dead nits from live ones. Empty nit shells are white whereas live nits with lice inside are darker in color.

Dead nits can fool "no-nit" screeners

Dead nits or empty shells, dandruff, and similar debris are sources of many false positives when children are screened for lice. If the lice screener is inexperienced any of this debris can look like live nits and trigger a positive "find". This is one reason that we do not advocate no-nit policies for schools (see What Are School-Based "No-Nit" Policies and Do They Work?). In other words, a child that has neither live lice, nor any live nits, may still be excluded from school if the screener mistakenly believes they have found "nits" in the child's hair. A better policy is to simply alert parents of a possible infestation and send home information about lice and lice control.

"Nits" sometimes refers to active lice, not just eggs

In some countries the term "nits" refers to live lice rather than just lice eggs. In the US "nits" generally refers only to the eggs attached to hairs. "Nitpicking" is the process of removing nits by hand usually with a comb of some kind but nits can also be crushed between fingernails. Primates often engage in mutual grooming behavior to remove lice and nits (which are usually eaten!) from each other.

Treating Lice and Picking Nits

Live lice should be treated with one of the medicated hair shampoos or lotions. This treatment alone, however, is not enough. To be 100% effective you MUST follow this treatment with proper nit picking using a good, metal lice comb. Plastic lice combs that sometimes are packaged with hair treatments are NOT effective for removing nits. Good quality lice combs and treatments can be found at the 'Bugs Store. See Using Lice Shampoos and Selecting Lice Combs for additional information.

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

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