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How Contagious is Head Lice?

How Contagious is Head Lice?
Created on 
April 12, 2017
Updated on 
April 4, 2023

Head lice are tiny insects which live in the human head hair, feed on blood, and require effective lice treatment to cure. Most people get lice via direct contact with someone who has an active head lice infestation. But do lice spread easily? Can you get lice without head to head contact? For example, can lice jump from person to person? Read on to discover just how easy is it to get lice.

Is Lice Contagious?

Here at LiceDoctors, we receive this question often. Parents whose children have friends with head lice, or who have been exposed are naturally concerned with the question is lice contagious or not? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Head lice is very contagious – especially when the person who has lice has had it for a long period of time resulting in a severe infestation.

Lice have been around for thousands of years and they have managed to last by moving from head to head during close contact. If you put a child with lice near another child, chances are fairly good that at least one bug from the infested child will move on to the other child's head. If a severe infestation is present, the hair will be crowded with nits, so lice will try to move on to another head. When another available, presumably less crowded, human scalp shows up and is within reach, adult lice crawl up the hair shaft to the new head. A non-infested head means less competition for a feeding spot for the newly arrived lice.

Are Lice Nits Contagious?

get lice contagious egg bug louse nit

The only phase in the lice life cycle where lice are contagious is when fertilized female adult lice are present. Yet the first sign of head lice most parents notice is lice eggs, called nits. Parents often confuse nits for other scalp issues at first, like dandruff, or an allergic reaction. But these nits, about the size of a poppy seed, are firmly attached to the hair shaft, and don't wash off.

It may be the child's school nurse who first diagnoses the issue. Schools may send children with early head lice infestations home, due to no nit policies, but this policy is becoming less common. And why worry about nits when they're not contagious?

How Contagious Is Lice?

About 95% of the time, people get head lice from direct contact with the hair of someone with lice. You're far less likely to risk spreading lice via personal items such as combs, towels, hats, or stuffed animals. Head lice can only live off the human head for about 24 hours; a head louse on an inanimate object will simply die without access to human blood.

Because lice do not fly or jump, you can often prevent head lice just by avoiding direct head to head contact. But is head lice contagious at brief encounters?  Live lice are very contagious with any direct contact. More so in situations with extended contact, like at slumber parties. Children tend to spread lice more often than adults, due to how often their play involves head to head contact. 

How Long Is Lice Contagious?

For a case of head lice to be considered contagious, live bugs need to be present. Therefore, there is no time limit for improperly treated lice infestations. Cases of head lice will remain contagious as long as there are live bugs on the head.

However, do not be lulled into a sense of security thinking that your problems are gone once all of the bugs are killed or removed. Plus, over the counter shampoos and home remedies may not kill lice effectively, with the rise of chemical resistant lice. To get rid of a case of head lice completely, each and every bug and nit must be removed from the hair. Left in the hair, just 2 eggs, once hatched and developed into mature lice, can start an infestation all over again.

How Long After Lice Treatment Are You Contagious?

head lice infestations

‍Once all of the live bugs are removed from the scalp or killed, a case of head lice can be considered no longer contagious as the bugs are the culprit when it comes to spreading to others. But after lice treatment, are you still contagious due to nits? The remaining eggs in the hair are not contagious (until a few days after they hatch). On their own, nits will not come off of a strand of hair. Even the empty nits remain glued to the hair shafts. Once removed, eggs cannot reattach to another strand of hair. It is important to follow up treatment to be sure there are no more nit sightings.

But how long after treating lice are you contagious? After a single treatment with LiceDoctors, you are no longer contagious! Your lice technician will ensure that every single live bug and visible nit is removed from the hair at the time of service and will provide a follow-up plan to ensure your family's case of head lice is totally eradicated. If you discover lice on your child or yourself, give LiceDoctors a call. We have a live lice expert who will answer your call from early morning until late night every day of the week and we are eager to help you treat head lice.

Should You Keep Your Child Off School with Head Lice?

Historically, school no nit policies have helped with disease control. If there's a nit, there's a possibility of hidden adult lice being present. Since lice are tiny insects that avoid light, they're difficult to spot. Most people only realize their treatment didn't work when itching, a common symptom of active lice, doesn't stop.

But because head lice is now one of the main reasons children miss school, these policies are no longer recommended. Lice experts can effectively eliminate the problem within a day, so you don't have to worry about missing school OR spreading lice.

What Else Do You Need to Know About Lice Contagiousness?

  • Anyone with hair on their scalp can get lice.
  • People with clean hair are more susceptible to catching lice than people with dirty hair
  • You don't need to clean your house after lice. They will die within about a day of being unable to access a human head.
  • By the time most parents notice the issue, it has been present and contagious for weeks.
  • Many schools have dropped no-nit policies, in light of the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines. This is good for academics but means that parents and guardians are responsible for identifying, treating, and tracing.

Lice Can Be Contagious For Adults Too

head lice contagious

Lice are contagious in close quarters, and the symptoms of lice aren't always obvious. People think of lice as a childhood problem. While most cases of lice are brought home by the youngest members of the family, by the time you witness the youngest child scratching excessively, the lice have usually spread to others. 

About 75% of the time, when we treat lice on a child, we locate some nits on Mom, Dad, or a sibling. If anyone in your home has head lice, then everyone in your home is at risk and your hair should be checked.

Can I Get Lice When Treating My Child?

Is lice contagious during treatment? You can definitely catch lice while treating your children. Take precautions like wearing your hair up under a cap and applying products or oils.  By the time you are treating the kids, there's a good chance you've already caught it. When LiceDoctors treats your children, we will also check and treat the adults in the household, who are just as likely to have lice as the kids by the time the case is identified.

Contact Lice Experts to Get Rid of Lice

Because head lice are highly contagious even before itching starts, and over the counter shampoos aren't working as well as they used to, many parents feel more at ease and have less difficulty sleeping easy by hiring a seasoned professional to do lice treatment. LiceDoctors' convenient home lice treatment service includes wet hair checking every family member with a special combing check that can detect the issue before it's symptomatic. Call LiceDoctors for details, and book an appointment today!

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