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What Diseases Can Be Caused By Lice Infestation?

What Diseases Can Be Caused By Lice Infestation?
Updated on 
January 21, 2021

Because of recent news reports of one neglected child whose tragic death may have been related in part to head lice, many parents are suddenly very nervous that lice are more dangerous than they thought. Do head lice spread disease?

First of all, let us set your mind at ease: according to the Center for Disease Control, lice (specifically head lice) are not known to spread contagious diseases among humans! The girl in the news story is suspected of being severely neglected, and there may have been many other contributing factors.

Just because head lice don’t transmit contagious diseases among humans doesn’t mean that body lice cannot spread disease.

Can body lice spread disease? Yes, body lice spread disease, so if lice are suspected, it is important to get a proper diagnosis to know the risks. However, there are some very obvious differences that should make it clear before you ever see a doctor whether it’s likely to be body lice or head lice. Click here for our simple guide on the differences between different types of lice.

What Disease Is Caused by Lice?

The following is a list of diseases caused by lice infestation, specifically with human body lice:

Typhus

Typhus Head Lice

Epidemic typhus (AKA louse-borne typhus) is caused by an intracellular strain of bacteria called Rickettsia prowazekii. It is spread among humans through bites from infected body lice (not head lice). The body lice disease typhus’ symptoms can include fever and chills, headache, rapid breathing, body and muscle aches, rash, cough, nausea, vomiting, confusion. Treatment involves antibiotics, so anyone experiencing these symptoms after having body lice should call their doctor immediately.

Relapsing Fever

Disease from Lice

Human body lice also act as vectors for the transmission of Borrelia recurrentis, the bacteria that causes louse-borne relapsing fever, or LBRF. This is not a problem that affects North America. Modern cases of relapsing fever have mainly occurred in refugee camps in Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia.

Trench Fever

Trench Fever Head Lice

Trench fever is another louse-borne disease caused by Bartonella Quintana, a bacterium endemic to Mexico, Tunisia, Eritrea, Poland, and the former Soviet Union. Trench fever is on the rise in the homeless population in North America. Again, it is not transmitted by head lice but can infect humans when feces from infected human body lice are rubbed or scratched into broken skin or the eyes. Trench fever occurs suddenly 2-4 weeks after exposure and manifests as a high, 5-6 day fever that recurs with rash, headache, redness of the eyes, severe pain in the shins and back, weakness, and dizziness.

Other Diseases Caused by Lice

Diseases Lice

Keep in mind that pediculosis, or head lice, is in itself considered a type of contagious disease. There aren’t really other communicable diseases caused by head lice directly, but lice can lead to other medical complications if not treated promptly.

Because untreated head lice infestations can cause severe itching, the frequent scratching can lead to breaking the skin with dirty fingernails, potentially leading to secondary infections, like staph infections and impetigo. Although washing the hair won’t help with head lice, washing the hands well and often will help prevent secondary skin infections if you have itching from lice bites. If there is evidence of continued rash or significant skin inflammation even after the head lice have been eliminated, see your doctor to rule out a secondary infection and treat it if necessary.

What Type of Disease Do Animal Lice and Mites Cause?

Other types of lice live on animals that don’t typically infest humans, but in uncommon cases, can affect people in various ways. If you develop symptoms of difficult-to-identify lice on the body (not head lice) after contact with wild animals or livestock, contact your doctor for more information.

Conclusion

Diseases and Lice

So, do lice carry disease? If you want to get technical, although pediculosis capitis (or human head lice disease) is defined as a disease state caused by a parasitic infestation of Pediculus humanus capitis (or the human head louse), head lice don’t act as a vector or spread other types of diseases directly between humans.

Do lice spread disease from person to person in certain circumstances? When people wonder do lice transmit disease in specific situations, the type of lice they’re probably thinking of is totally different from head lice. Body lice (Pediculus humanus humanus) are a completely different bug, and body lice do not spontaneously turn into head lice or vice-versa. The chances that you just happen to be dealing with both at the same time are extremely slim unless you are living in particular circumstances.

Diseases from Lice

According to the CDC, people usually catch body lice in situations where multiple people are crowded together but aren’t able to bathe or change clothes regularly, specifically like homeless encampments or shelters and refugee camps. If you find yourself in this risky situation, here are some tips to avoid body lice and disease caused by lice of this type:

  • Bathe and change into clean clothes at least once weekly.
  • Avoid putting dirty clothes back on after bathing.
  • Wash clothing at least once weekly using water that is 130°F or hotter, and dry on high heat. Freezing, dry cleaning, or isolating and storing can help with items that can’t tolerate heat or washing. This is especially important for clothing that has been on an infested person and perhaps for items whose cleanliness status is unknown, like secondhand clothing.
  • Never share items that touch the body that were used by a person who has body lice or any of the above diseases.
  • There are impermeable bags that can be zipped around mattresses that need to be shared, like for house guests. Most hotels and hostels and other regulated places providing overnight lodging use some variation of these bed bags nowadays, but it never hurts to ask ahead.
  • LiceDoctors cannot treat body lice, but scrupulous hygiene practices will help with body lice without needing medical treatment since body lice live in the clothing, not on the person.

If you’re dealing with head lice, take a deep breath: your family will be fine because you are a responsible parent who is quickly taking the necessary steps to eliminate the head lice. If you need any help at all, you can call LiceDoctors at 1-800-224-2537 day or night for same-day professional diagnosis and safe, effective treatment.

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