How To Check for Head Lice: A Complete Guide to Lice Detection

How To Check for Head Lice: A Complete Guide to Lice Detection

Did you just receive the dreaded letter sent home from school about head lice running rampant in the classroom? Or maybe it was a phone call from an apologetic fellow soccer mom on your child’s team? Or perhaps your child has started scratching their head and just can’t stop? No matter what is giving rise to your suspicions, your signals are now flashing on high alert— lice could be in my home!

With the alarms going off in your head, it’s time to ask the wise and all-knowing Google the question— how do I know if my child has head lice? The head lice symptoms you’ll discover are intense itching, a tickling sensation on the scalp, and possible little sores on the scalp. While it’s easy to mistakenly think your child might have head lice, if you see lice scampering around on the scalp, there can be no doubt. For that matter, if you see lice eggs “glued” to the hair shaft near the base of the hair follicle, then all doubt should be erased as well. There’s only one way to know definitively if you or your child has lice - lice or lice eggs are present in the hair. This will then lead you to the inevitable search— how to check for head lice?

That’s what brought you here.

We are prepared to share our expertise on the best ways to check for head lice and will provide a step-by-step lice checking guide. First, let’s cover some of the lice basics.

In This Article:

What Are Head Lice?

Head lice (pediculus capitis) are tiny parasites that feed exclusively on the blood drawn from the human scalp. These blood-sucking insects cling to the human scalp and lay eggs (nits) that are essentially “glued” to hair shafts and are smaller than the size of a pinhead.

How big are lice? Head lice are about the size of a sesame seed and have six tiny legs with claws hooked onto each one to help them firmly grip the shafts of hair. Can lice jump? No, they don’t have hind legs! Do lice fly? No, they don’t have wings! What do head lice look like? Check our head lice images yourself— lice are tiny, creepy-crawly critters that can range in color from pale white-ish or yellow to darker shades of brown.


What Do Lice Feel Like?

When lice are on your head, you might feel a tickling sensation as the lice crawl and scamper along your scalp. However, you might not notice a tickling sensation at all! Consciously feeling the movements of lice depends on the sensitivity of each individual’s scalp. When asking someone who has had lice, what do lice feel like? They may respond with feelings of tickling, crawling, or prickling. However, nearly everyone will passionately describe the intense itching sensations! That’s the main symptom of lice, after all!


If Someone Has Head Lice, How Long Before You Get Them?

There’s no clear-cut or definite answer to the question: if someone has head lice, how long before you get them? There are a few things to keep in mind. Mainly, if you are able to avoid head-to-head - or preferably body-to-body - contact with a lice-infested person, you can minimize the chances of catching lice. While you can touch a person's arm, we wouldn't advise giving them a hug. Lice are happy to crawl from one person to another. Remember that lice cannot jump, hop, or fly.

It is very unlikely for lice to “fall” off a person’s head voluntarily or accidentally. Lice like to stay where it’s warm and where their food source is— the human scalp. Thus, it's best to avoid contact with all items - including furniture and bedding - that have recently been in contact with a lice-infested person. 

How long can lice live on furniture? The Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that “head lice survive less than 1–2 days if they fall off a person and cannot feed; nits cannot hatch and usually die within a week if they are not kept at the same temperature as that found close to the human scalp.” Thus, the risk of contracting lice from the floor, furniture, or bedding is quite minimal. Moreover, we’d like to share the American Academy of Pediatrics findings that:

Indirect spread through contact with personal belongings of an infested individual (combs, brushes, hats) is much less likely to occur. Lice found on combs are likely to be injured or dead, and a louse is not likely to leave a healthy head unless there is a heavy infestation. In one study, live lice were found on only 4% of pillowcases used by infested volunteers.” 

Are lice contagious? Yes. Absolutely, yes! However, they are most likely to be contracted from direct person-to-person contact. The chances of getting lice if exposed increase exponentially the more physical contact you have with that person.

We also want to point out that lice are not hiding in nooks, crannies, crevices, or sandboxes! Lice are not like other insects out there. They are not even that similar to the other blood-sucking insect out there— the tick. You won’t find lice hanging off low-hanging branches or perched on weeds in the garden. Head lice are found exclusively on human beings, not even on dogs, cats, or other animals.  

How Long Can You Have Lice Before Noticing?

How long can you have head lice before noticing? That’s a great question! Itchiness is the main symptom of lice. The whole reason for itchiness of the scalp isn’t the movement of lice on the scalp; instead, it’s a small allergic reaction to lice’s saliva, which gets injected each time a louse draws blood from the scalp. While not everyone has a peanut butter allergy, almost all of us are allergic to lice saliva!

That being said, if it is your first time, or your child’s first time getting lice, it may take some time for the skin on the scalp to develop a sensitivity to lice saliva. A new allergic reaction isn’t always immediate. A reaction could take between four to six weeks to occur! What does that mean? Well, you or your child wouldn’t be feeling itchy for four to six weeks after getting lice for the first time. That means that you could have lice for four to six weeks before knowing it! The Mayo Clinic confirms — “When a person has a lice infestation for the first time, itching may not occur for four to six weeks after infestation.

So, how long after exposure to lice do symptoms appear? If you’ve had lice before, it’s more likely that you will experience lice symptoms within a couple of days after contracting lice. Lastly, we definitely want to mention that itching can last for weeks after lice have been eradicated! Persistent itchiness can occur long after all lice have been killed and nits have been removed. The scalp can continue to itch due to the body processing the allergic reaction.


How to Check For Head Lice?

If you’re wondering— how do I know if I have lice, It all starts with checking for head lice. First things first, gather your tools.

Tools for Checking for Head Lice:

  • Fine-toothed comb
  • White paper towels or tissues
  • Hair clips or hair ties
  • Chair
  • Strong, bright lighting
  • Optional: magnifying glass


6 Steps to Check for Head Lice:

  1. Checking for Lice Step 1: Start with good lighting, whether that’s bright sunlight or a lamp with an adjustable arm.
  2. Checking for Lice Step 2: Get your child’s head wet with water, then sit them in a chair.
  3. Checking for Lice Step 3: Divide the hair into a few large sections, perhaps using clips or hair ties as needed.
  4. Checking for Lice Step 4: Use a fine-toothed comb to part your child’s hair into smaller sections.
  5. Checking for Lice Step 5: Starting closest to the scalp, peer closely at the scalp to see if you find any lice or lice eggs. Check everywhere, not just behind the ears and nape of the neck! Lice and nits can be anywhere on your head. Using a magnifying glass makes this MUCH easier; however, lice can be seen with the naked eye. A magnifying glass isn't necessary, but it is definitely helpful.
  6. Checking for Lice Step 6: Use a high quality nit-removal comb—comb through the hair slowly and carefully and wipe the comb on a paper towel. How do you know if you have lice? If you inspect the paper towel and find lice or nits, you definitively know that your child has lice!

While some sources recommend you do a lice check with dry hair instead of wet hair, we find wet hair makes it easier to see the lice and nits. As the American Academy of Pediatrics asserts, doing a lice check is “most easily accomplished on wet hair. Studies have suggested that lice removed by combing and brushing are damaged and rarely survive.” Keep in mind that when you comb the hair to remove lice from the head, you won’t usually see lice crawling on the paper towel. You are not looking for movement. You’ll have to look very closely at the size and shape to see if it is really a louse.

How To Tell The Difference Between Lice and Dandruff?

Do I have lice, or do I just have dandruff? Confusing lice for dandruff happens all the time! However, with just a few pieces of information in your arsenal, you’ll never confuse lice with dandruff again.

Dandruff comes in all shapes and sizes: there can be large chunks or tiny flakes. Also, dandruff is always irregularly shaped. Dandruff has uneven edges and is amorphously shaped. Like a snowflake, every piece of dandruff is a little bit different. Moreover, dandruff is easily dislodged from the hair and will fall easily off the scalp.


On the other hand, lice are always the same shape and are uniform in size. Adult lice are two to three millimeters in size. Lice eggs, also called nits, are a tiny bit smaller than a pinhead. Nits stick to the hair like glue, whereas dandruff flakes off easily. Moreover, nits are always tear-dropped shaped. Just like lice, nits are always the same shape and size! After hatching, a louse is called a nymph for the first week of life. A nymph is slightly smaller than a fully-grown louse but will be the same shape as the adults.


Remember to always look for the differences in size and shape to best tell dandruff and lice apart. Also, the ease with which the "objects" in question come off the head is another critical indicator. If you hold the paper towel up to bright light, it should be obvious if it is lice, dandruff, or dirt. For more guidance and information, check out our blogpost on dandruff vs. lice and on how to tell the differences between the two. 

How To Check Yourself For Lice? 

How to check yourself for lice is quite similar to checking others for lice. If you have a child who has head lice, it’s only natural to worry that you might have head lice as well. If you don’t have anyone to help you look for head lice on your own scalp, there are few crucial tips for checking for lice on your own head.

Just follow the steps outlined above; however, you'll need to have two mirrors positioned to face each other. With the mirrors facing each other, you'll be able to check your scalp more easily.  

Final Note

Please remember not to begin lice treatment unless you find live lice or nits on the head and scalp. The American Academy of Pediatrics specifies:

Never initiate treatment unless there is a clear diagnosis with living lice. The ideal treatment of lice should be safe, free of toxic chemicals, readily available without a prescription, easy to use, effective, and inexpensive.

If you’re looking for the best head lice treatment out there that fits the bill—safe, effective, affordable, and non-toxic— we are proud to present you with our signature Lice Choice products. All the products in our lice treatment kit are all-natural, hypoallergenic, and free of chemicals, toxins, and pesticides. We use lice's own DNA against them and speed up the life cycle of lice from weeks to seconds. Learn more about Lice Choice’s lice kit by clicking here.

If you are tempted to begin lice treatment as soon as you suspect your child might be exposed to lice, you can use our Lice Choice spray as a preventative. As there are no chemicals and no potential side effects, Lice Choice is safe to use on everybody and anybody! Prevent lice and keep your home lice free with Lice Choice. Click here to learn more!

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