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Head lice: Signs and symptoms

How to find head lice early

Head lice affects about 6 to 12 million children, ages 3 to 12, each year in the U.S. To spot the signs of head lice early and help prevent an infestation from spreading, follow these tips from board-certified dermatologists.

What are the signs and symptoms of head lice?

Signs and symptoms of head lice include:

  • Itchy scalp.

  • Scratching. Some people scratch so much that the scalp — and sometimes the back of the neck — become red and irritated.

  • Crawling sensation. People often feel something crawling on the hair or scalp.

  • Seeing bugs. These look like light-brown sesame seeds crawling on the hair, skin, or clothing.

  • Finding lice eggs (nits). The eggs are yellow, brown, or tan and about the size of a pinhead. These seem glued to the hair. If the eggs have hatched, you will see clear shells.

  • Swollen lymph nodes (many people call “glands”) in the neck.

  • Pink eye. This is a common eye infection.

Common symptom of head lice

An itchy scalp is the most common symptom of head lice.

A four year-old boy scratching his head

An itchy scalp is the most obvious symptom of head lice, but that alone does not mean you have head lice. Other more common things such as dandruff and eczema also can make the scalp itch.

You also can have head lice and not itch. It sometimes takes a few weeks after the lice arrive for the scalp to start itching.

Getty Images

Frankowski BL, Bocchini JA. “Head Lice.” Pediatrics. 2010; 126(2):392-403.