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Differences Among Head Lice, Body Lice, and Pubic Lice

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Updated on July 24, 2020

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Occasionally at LiceDoctors, we get a call from someone who describes symptoms of either body lice or pubic lice. While we are experts in head lice, we are not experts in body or pubic lice and, therefore, we recommend that those callers contact their doctor.

Head Lice

What Do Head Lice Look Like? Adult head lice are approximately 2–3 mm long, about the size of a sesame seed. They are brownish in color, have 6 legs, and no wings. Head lice attach to the hair in the head near the base of the hair shaft and lay eggs near the scalp. Head lice need to be near the head so that they can feed from blood in the hair. How Do You Get Head Lice? Lice move by crawling; they cannot jump or fly. Head lice infestation, or pediculosis, is generally transmitted by close person-to-person contact. Dogs, cats, and other pets do not play a role in the transmission of human lice. Occasionally lice are transmitted through objects such as clothing or hats or on combs or brushes or potentially on the furniture but since bugs die within a day without human blood, these are not common ways for people to get head lice. Getting head lice has nothing to do with the socio-economic strata or hygiene of the person or his or her environment. In fact, lice prefer clean hair as it is easier for the louse to attach itself to hair that is product or oil-free. Who Gets Head Lice? In the United States, infestation with head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis) occurs primarily among preschool- and elementary school-age children and their families. Since head to head contact is the primary way that head lice are transferred, young children in school and at play are the most likely candidates for head lice infestation. Head lice generally do not transmit disease. The CDC estimates that 6 million to 12 million infestations occur each year in the United States among children 3 to 11 years of age. More girls get head lice than boys because their hair is longer and more accessible to the bugs.

Body Lice

What Do Body Lice Look Like? Adult body lice are 2.3–3.6 mm in length, which is slightly longer than head lice, however body lice is very similar to head lice in appearance. Like head lice, body lice have 6 legs and do not have wings. Like head lice, body lice are brownish in color and have 2 antennae coming from the head. How Do You Get Body Lice? Body lice are transferred from person to person through direct contact. Body lice may also spread through direct contact with items that carry the body lice like towels, bedding, and clothing. Unlike head lice that live on the head, body lice stay and lay eggs on clothing and on bedding and furniture. Body lice only go to the body to feed and do not reside there; the most likely places on the body to find body lice bites are around the waist, groin and armpits as these are sites where clothing seams are most likely to be in contact with the skin. Unlike head lice, body lice are known to spread disease. Epidemics of typhus and louse-borne relapsing fever have been spread by body lice (generally in places where climate, poverty, and social upheaval do not allow for bathing and/or regular changes and washing of clothing). Who Gets Body Lice? As with head lice, body lice infestations are typically spread by close person-to-person contact but, unlike head lice, body lice typically are found on people who live in crowded conditions and who have poor hygiene. Typically body lice are more likely to found on people living in conditions such as homeless shelters and refugee camps. Body lice are extremely contagious, like head lice, and can spread quickly under cramped conditions.

Pubic Lice

What Do Pubic Lice Look Like? Adult pubic lice are 1.1–1.8 mm in length, which is smaller than both head lice and body lice. Pubic lice affix themselves to hair in the pubic area but occasionally are found on coarse hair elsewhere on the body (such as eyebrows, beard, chest, armpits, leg hair, eyelashes, etc.). Mature pubic lice look like miniature crabs when viewed through a strong magnifying glass hence the colloquialism “crabs”. Pubic lice have six legs and their two front legs are bigger than the other four giving them the look of pincher claws of a crab. Unlike head lice and body lice, pubic lice are tan to grayish-white in color. Like head lice and body lice, pubic lice feed on blood several times a day.  Also like head lice and body lice, if the louse falls off a person, it will die within 1-2 days. How Do You Get Pubic Lice? Pubic lice infestations (pthiriasis) are typically transmitted through sexual contact. Dogs, cats, and other pets cannot get pubic lice and do not have anything to do with the transmission of human lice. Who Gets Pubic Lice? Pubic ("crab") lice infestations exist around the world and my affect anyone regardless of his or her socio-economic strata. Pubic lice usually are transferred through sexual contact and are most common in adults. While it is much less common, pubic lice may be spread through close personal contact or by touching objects such as clothing, bed linens, and towels that have been used by a person who has pubic lice. Pubic lice do not carry disease; occasionally secondary bacterial infection can occur from scratching of the skin. If pubic lice are found on a child, they may come from a parent or could be a sign of sexual abuse. Learn More At Our Lice Education Center.

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