A person can take steps to find, prevent, and treat head lice. To check their own scalp for live head lice and eggs, a person can use a mirror, a fine comb, and check for lice, which may look like seeds or dandruff.

Head lice are small insects that live on people’s hair and scalp, feeding on blood, and spread during head-to-head contact. They cannot fly and do not affect pets.

These lice do not spread disease. However, they may make a person’s scalp feel itchy and cause other symptoms. They often affect school-aged children. In the United States, 6-12 million children may have head lice each year.

This article discusses how people can check for head lice at home. It also discusses symptoms, treatments, and prevention.

The back of a person's head and hair as they look at a mirror on the wall 1Share on Pinterest
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People can visually inspect themselves or others for lice or nits, which are head lice eggs.

Finding live head lice is the only way for a person to be sure they have them. However, live head lice may be difficult to find because they:


To check themselves, people will need:

  • two mirrors arranged so they can see the back of their neck and ears, as well as the front of their head
  • a bright light
  • a fine comb or lice comb

A magnifying glass and disposable gloves may also be helpful.

Before looking for lice, a person will need to wet their hair, making it easier to see lice and preventing them from scurrying away.

What to look for

Sitting under the bright light, people can separate their hair by combing it outward section by section, using the arranged mirrors to look for lice or nits in the following areas:

  • on their scalp, where the hair parts
  • on the hair strands
  • behind both ears
  • near the back of the neck

Typically, adult lice are light brown and look similar to sesame seeds. They often move around a person’s scalp and hair quickly.

Head lice attach nits to the hair strands within 2 mm from the scalp. They look like tiny seeds. People are more likely to see nits than lice because nits do not move. Unhatched nits are yellow or brown. Hatched or opened eggs look clear.

Sometimes, people confuse nits with dandruff, lint, sand, or dirt. However, a person can easily flick or pull these materials off their hair using a comb, while flicking or pulling a nit will not easily move it.

After checking themselves, it is best for a person to dispose of any gloves they used and wash their hands.

Learn more about what lice look like.

Symptoms of head lice may include:

People can often treat lice using over-the-counter or prescription medications. Healthcare professionals call these medications pediculicides.

When using pediculicides, it is best to:

  • avoid using conditioner or a combination shampoo and conditioner before applying the medication
  • remove clothing that could stain during treatment
  • apply the medication according to the instructions
  • put clean clothing on after treatment
  • comb out any dead or remaining live lice using a fine-toothed comb after 8-12 hours
  • avoid rewashing the hair for 2 days after removing the medication
  • check for lice every 2–3 days for 2–3 weeks after treatment

People with hair longer than shoulder length may need more than one bottle of pediculicide.

The medication may take up to 12 hours to fully treat a person’s hair. If the head lice seem still active after 12 hours, the medication may not have worked. In that case, it is best to consult a healthcare professional before retreating the scalp with the same medication or switching to a different one.

Learn more about effective ways to get rid of lice.

People can take steps to help prevent the spread of head lice, such as avoiding the following:

  • direct head-to-head or hair-to-hair contact with others
  • sharing brushes, towels, combs, or clothing that may have come into contact with hair
  • using bedding, carpets, or sofas that have recently been in contact with people with head lice

A person can also:

  • disinfect combs or brushes people with head lice have used by soaking them for 5–10 minutes in water heated to at least 130oF
  • machine wash bedding and other items a person with head lice has used within the last 2 days, using a hot water setting
  • dry clean items that cannot be machine washed
  • seal items that cannot be washed or dry cleaned in a plastic bag for 2 weeks
  • vacuum floors and furniture

People should not use fumigant sprays or fogs to treat head lice. These do not get rid of lice and can be toxic if people inhale or touch them.

Head lice may cause itching and other symptoms. People can check themselves for live lice and nits using simple methods.

If a person does have head lice, they can use medications to treat it. A healthcare professional can recommend which medications may work best and offer alternatives if a treatment is ineffective.

People can also take steps to help prevent the spread of head lice.