By Karen Sokoloff
We receive a number of calls from Dallas area parents asking us this question. Lice and nits can be challenging to spot on the head, particularly to the untrained eye. Lice tend to scoot away from the light. This means that as soon as you start to move the hair around to find them, these bugs will move away from you very quickly.
What Do Lice Look Like?
In order to find lice, you need to know what they look like. Bugs vary in size from tiny (newborns are called nymphs) to about the size of a sesame seed. They are brown, have six legs, and are wingless.
The adult head louse is about a tenth of an inch long, has 6 legs, and is usually tannish to gray. They have flat backs and have a thoracic region that is segregated from the head and abdomen. The abdomen has seven sections to it. The legs are attached to the thorax and are short and have a claw at the end, as well as a thumb type appendage. The claw and thumb are used to cling on to the hair and to climb up to the scalp to feed. These bugs move very quickly around the head, making them hard to see and catch.
Lice need to feed at least three times a day on blood from the head. As the louse ingests blood, its translucent appearance changes to a reddish color.
The head of the louse has two antennae protruding from it. The antennae have five sections.
The head of the louse has two antennae protruding from it. The antennae have five sections. In addition lice have two eyes and their mouth has parts that are adapted for biting the skin to suck blood. Their mouth is hidden except during feeding time. When viewing lice, you can see seven parts of their abdomen. Each louse uses six of those parts to breathe; the seventh section includes the anus and genitals.
Female lice have two front legs that are longer than the other ones. They use these front legs during mating to hold the female. Females are bigger than their male counterparts and have a “w” shape and the end of their abdomens. Males have a pointy end of their abdomen and their genitals are well-developed. Wikipedia Head Lice
What Do Nits (Lice Eggs) Look Like?
Nits are the eggs laid by the lice. There can’t be eggs on the scalp without there having been a louse there to lay them. The louse might have vacated the head and moved onto someone else’s head and in that case you will see eggs but no lice.
Nits also range in size from tiny to about the size of sesame seed. Over the 10 days or so that it takes the nit to mature, it grows in size. Nits are oval with a pointy front. Nits have a translucent shell which houses and protects the baby bug that is growing inside. They are glued to the hair shaft close to the head. They may have a whitish look in the hair but when removed, they are brown. Nits camouflage in the hair, which adds to the difficulty of identifying them.
Over the 10 days or so that it takes the nit to mature, it grows in size. Nits are oval with a pointy front. Nits have a translucent shell which houses and protects the baby bug that is growing inside. They are glued to the hair shaft close to the head. They may have a whitish look in the hair but when removed, they are brown. Nits camouflage in the hair, which adds to the difficulty of identifying them.
Females lay about 6-10 eggs a day over their lifetime which is about a month. Once nits hatch, they leave behind empty shells called casings. These casings are white, as they no longer contain a brown baby bug. It is easier to see casings than nits, especially in dark hair, and these shells are harmless. Eventually, they may fall out themselves.
Once the nit hatches, a nymph or baby bug comes out. As the newly emerged nymph matures, it will go through three stages. After about 10 days the nymph is a mature louse and can begin to lay eggs. This cycle will repeat every 21 days if you do not use an effective lice treatment. American Academy of Pediatrics
Lice like to lay eggs around the ears and at the nape of the neck, but they are also found all over the head near the scalp. Nits are tightly cemented to the hair so they generally will not fall off the hair. The female louse emits the cement-like substance that is used to attach the nit. At first the substance is gooey but quickly it solidifies. It will always leave an opening for the nymph to breathe inside the egg.
Within a month a female louse may lay up to 200-300 eggs. These eggs need the human temperature of the scalp so they will be as close to the scalp as possible. The eggs will typically break open within 10 days of being laid so the nymph (baby louse) can emerge. The shell of the nit will stay glued to the hair until it is extracted even though it is no longer viable. If is is not removed, after several months, the empty shell will eventually dissolve. These empty nit shells have a whitish, translucent color.
When you are going through the hair, do not confuse empty shells with viable nits that have a darker color. Also, do not confuse nits with dandruff which is white, flakey, and can be flicked of the hair. Some folks confuse DEC plugs and nits. Both are sticky but DEC plugs, which are oily secretions, are smaller and white.
Recently, lice technician, Laura, went to treat a family in their home in Denton. When she arrived, the mom told her that her neighbor had called to inform her that her daughter had lice. This mom looked at her daughter’s head and saw several white sticky things in the hair that she took for nits. This is totally understandable. These little things look like nits unless you have years of experience.
Laura who has been picking nits for a long time recognized what she was looking at, but she needed to convince the client. Laura did what we advise everyone to do when extracting things from the hair: she wiped it on a wet paper towel. If what she was removing from the hair were nits, then they would appear brown against the white background. Keep in mind that nits have a translucent shell that encases a brown baby bug. In the case of this Denton client, when Laura placed the white things against the white background they blended right in! She had pulled out DEC plugs! Once Laura explained this to the client and demonstrated exactly what she was doing, the client was enormously relieved.
How Do You Check for Lice and Nits?
So now you know, in more detail than you may need to know, what lice and nits look like. Next you may wonder how to take that information and put it to use? In other words, how do I best search for these critters and their eggs on the head?
Grab ahold of a lamp. It can be a small desk lamp or a big floor lamp. Even better, place the child in front of a bright window or go outside. Outside light provide you with the best daylight background. Next make sure that the child has on old clothes and then have her sit down.
You will then apply oil to the hair. The process of adding oil to the hair will loosen the nits and significantly slow down the quick moving lice. Then take your nit comb and start combing the hair section by section. You want each section to be a comb’s width. Keep combing and wiping on a wet paper towel until you find no more nits or bugs in the hair.
The next step is to wash the hair and dry it. Then go through stand by strand and pick out any remaining nits. While the comb is a good start, it may very well leave behind some smaller nits. If the nits are newly laid, the tines of the comb will not be close enough together to catch them.
We have described what lice and nits look like and have given you a plan of attack. You can try this on your own but many people find that they still can’t get out all remnants of the infestation. This can be very frustrating for you as you have put in a lot of labor and now you find yourself back to square one.
Another option is to call in a professional. You can do this anytime during the process. You may want to avoid a lot of work and/or disappointment and call a professional right from the start. You may prefer to start on your own and see how you do. LiceDoctors technicians have a very long history of helping families with this challenging task. Often we see families who have tried in vain to eradicate lice and nits.
LiceDoctors arrive at the home and often find a very chaotic situation with families who are under a lot of stress. Parents are usually relieved to have an expert in the room to take the lice treatment burden off of them. LiceDoctors technicians are compassionate and knowledgeable. They work efficiently and thoroughly to make sure that all visible nits are gone. They will then provide you with a basic follow-up plan that will guarantee that the lice do not return. Call LiceDoctors in Dallas and all surrounding areas at 214-382-9727.