How to treat head lice and nits

Having head lice, also called nits, doesn't mean you're dirty. Children are most commonly affected, but anyone with hair can catch them.

Head lice are tiny insects that live in human hair. They're very small (about the size of a sesame seed) and are browny-grey in colour.

They have six legs, each with a claw on the end. They use these to cling on to hair, and they survive by biting the scalp and feeding on blood. This often causes itching, but not always.

The female head lice lay eggs in sacs that stick to individual hairs. A baby head louse then hatches 7 to 10 days later.

If your child has head lice, you might be able to spot the remains of the tiny white egg in their hair. This is called a "nit". Some people also use the word "nit" to mean "head lice".

The baby head louse is ready to have babies of its own 10 to 14 days later.

Head lice crawl from head to head when you're close to someone who has them. Children are particularly at risk because they're often in close contact with other children at school. 

Head lice can't fly or jump, and it's very rare to get head lice from a pillow or a towel as they can't survive away from a human head for very long.

How to spot head lice

Head lice can be difficult to detect, even when you closely inspect your child's head.

If you think your child may have head lice:

  • Check your child's hair. The most common places for head lice to lurk are in the hair behind the ears and at the nape of the neck.
  • If you still can't spot any lice, comb the child's hair with a special nit comb. These are available from most chemists. It's easier to spot head lice as they fall out if you comb the hair over a piece of white paper.

Find out more about how to spot head lice.

Treating head lice

If head lice are present, you need to treat your child.

You should only treat your child if you find live head lice, which confirms a live infestation. Don't treat "just in case".

Head lice are tough. They can't be killed by washing with normal shampoo or normal combing. Because they reproduce so quickly, you've got to kill them before they spread to others.

If your child has head lice, check everyone in the family. You'll need to treat everyone affected to get rid of them.

You can treat head lice by wet-combing hair with a special comb, or by using medicated lotions or sprays available over the counter at pharmacies.

Find out more about the treatment of head lice.

Page last reviewed: 16/01/2015

Next review due: 16/01/2017


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The 9 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

billbenginger said on 25 March 2011

Just to comment that my youngest recently had head lice. Her hair is extremely thin and the treatments although gets rid of the lice well it did not have any effect on the nits. After doing some searching on the internet we went and covered her hair in oil and also bought the nitty gritty comb. I have to say I do not know how much the oil works but you have to get one of those nitty gritty combs - it is superb. Even with very fine hair it managed to get all the nits out - if it was not for the nitty gritty comb I would have been there for another few hours and also I am not sure we would have erradicated in one session. Fantastic!

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BigLoveFTW said on 26 July 2009

Where I live, headlice are rife at all the primary schools, but thankfully seem to disappear by secondary. The method of 'nit-combing' is the most effective, as chemical treatments don't always work and aren't very good for your kids either! I would also recommend tying long hair back and advising your children to keep their heads away from others'.

Unfortunately, it is another case of the minority making life difficult for the majority - the majority of parents get rid of the lice, but it is the few that don't that keep reinfesting primary school kids.

For local teachers, keeping nit-ridden children home is not an option - they ALL have nits, and the schools cannot close! It's such a pain, but at least it's generally over by the time they reach high school.

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leanne said on 16 August 2008

i have two children a boy and a girl my daughter suffered with them a lot during the infant school ,i found that some of the remedies people are prescribed dont work because the nits become immune to the chemicals.i just used tea tree conditioner and a nit comb with a little patience and time this method son has only ever had them twice during his time in the infant school,i just think some children get prone to them.

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Sue said on 13 August 2008

I have 2 girls who kept getting headlice at school, it took me ages to get rid of them. Someone recommended Tea Tree conditioner and they haven't had them since. It is not expensive neither.

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Carol said on 09 August 2008

Too much shampooing strips the hair of its natural oils and makes it easier for the lice to get a grip.

Lice are becoming immune to the effects of the chemicals but not sure that kids are immune to what is being absorbed through their scalps!

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Sarah St said on 28 June 2008

I have a friend, who has suffered with nits constantly throughout his life. He claims to wash his hair regularly, but this doesnt seem to make a difference. As with Ria's situation, I believe he has become immune to the treatments available. Does he need to take more extreme measures???

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DM said on 28 June 2008

My friend Sarah has headlice, although I think it is because she wouldn't wash her hair that often. We have tried loads of different treatments, and finally we have managed to get rid of them 8 weeks after we started!

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Ria said on 15 April 2008

I have two young boys one 6 and other 2. Both suffer from exzcema, and suffer now and again with patches on scalp. I suffer from itchy and sensitive scalp. We all scratch at heads, so 3 weeks ago, certainly never thought no more, until we wenty to a barbers to discover that both kids had them. i immedtaely treated them and myself, and found no eggs. Since then I have been constantly checking boys and their heads have been rumped. However yesterday discovered I had some more. Have been told tea tree shampoo helps, from mothers who kids are contsantly getting them and the treatments are no longer working on the scalps.

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Sally said on 10 April 2008

Head lice - what a pain, I have four children (3 girls and a boy) and all have had lice at least once. The best method I have found is to comb their hair whilst in the bath with plenty of conditioner on the hair. Not only does it make it easier to comb the hair, the eggs are much easier to remove and the live lice don't have a chance. Do this every other day. The other method is to literally pick the eggs and lice out using your fingers, very time consuming but effective. Keep long hair tied up and don't wash hair too often (about once or twice a week)- lice prefer clean hair. Use ordinary conditioner to keep hair smooth to help prevent the lice from setting up home on your child's head!

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