Are you itching to know if you have lice or if your child has lice? Suspecting that lice might be inside your home and on your head might make you want to hit the panic button, but first, you want to make sure you actually have lice. That is where diagnosing lice comes in.

Let’s make sure we clear up any confusion about how to diagnose head lice, how to check for lice, and how to treat lice. We’ll start with the basics and go from there. Ready to become your very own lice expert? Let’s get started.

What Are Lice?

Head lice are tiny, wingless insects that live amid human hair and feed on blood drawn from the scalp. They are about the size of a sesame seed, so they are small, but not small enough that you can’t see them. Ranging in color from white-ish yellow and tan to brown or dark grey, the Center for Disease Control points out that “adult head lice may look darker in persons with dark hair than in persons with light hair.” Lice are experts at adapting.

Lice have six legs with sharp claws attached to the end. These claws are what makes it so easy for lice to strongly cling to human hair. Lice do not have hind legs, nor do they have wings— lice cannot jump, hop, glide, float, or fly. Limited only to crawling, lice move fast. Scientific studies have found that lice crawl “at a rapid rate [of] 23 cm/min under natural conditions”

What Are Nits?

Lice eggs are called nits. They are definitely something you want to look out for when diagnosing lice. Nits are truly tiny— about the size of a knot in thread! With regards to the color of nits, they “often appear yellow or white although live nits sometimes appear to be the same color as the hair of the infested person.” Nits take around eight or nine days to hatch and are stuck to the hair shaft within 1/4th inch from the scalp itself. They must be that close to the scalp to get enough heat to incubate properly and hatch.

What Are The Symptoms of Head Lice?

The main symptom of head lice is intense itching. However, some people do get a small rash of red bumps from scratching or may experience small sores. Another possible symptom is the sensation of prickling, tickling, or crawling on the scalp. For the sake of specificity, the main symptom of itching is caused by lice saliva, which is injected as they draw blood from the scalp. Just like mosquito bites, itching is merely a small allergic reaction to insect saliva! As the Mayo Clinic asserts, it’s important to know that “when a person has a lice infestation for the first time, itching may not occur for four to six weeks after infestation.” This is because it can take some time for the body to develop enough sensitivity to have an allergic reaction to lice, specifically to lice saliva. Thus, itchiness isn’t the most reliable symptom of lice. What is the most reliable symptom of lice? The presence of lice or lice eggs.

How to Check For Head Lice?

Before beginning lice treatment, it’s important to check to see if you or your child actually has lice! The American Academy of Pediatrics urges parents to “Never initiate treatment unless there is a clear diagnosis with living lice. So, how do you check for head lice? It isn’t as difficult as you think. First, grab a fine-toothed comb (preferably a nit comb) and paper towels. If you happen to have a magnifying glass or think you’ll need hair clips or hair ties, grab those as well. Make sure you conduct the lice check in bright lighting and while the hair is wet.

Step 1: For starters, peer closely at the scalp to see if you can see any movement. A magnifying glass proves helpful; however, lice are “difficult to spot because they’re small, avoid light, and move quickly.”

Step 2: If your child has long hair, separate the hair into sections using clips or ties, then divide it into multiple smaller sections.

Step 3: Slowly comb through a very small section of hair. Then, wipe the comb onto a paper towel. Scrutinize the paper towel looking for lice or nits. Repeat the combing and wiping until you have found lice, or you’ve completed the entire head.

If you find any lice or nits, it’s time to begin treatment!

How to Treat Head Lice?

While there are plenty of over-the-counter and prescription lice treatment products out there, be aware— or should we say beware!— of the potential side effects. The active ingredients in over-the-counter lice treatments are mainly pyrethrins and permethrin. For starters, the National Pesticide Information Center warns that “children who have gotten lice shampoo containing pyrethrins in their eyes have experienced irritation, tearing, burns, scratches to the eye, and blurred vision. When inhaled, irritation of the respiratory passages, runny nose, coughing, difficulty breathing, vomiting, and diarrhea have been reported.” It has been “concluded that permethrin is a weak carcinogenic” by the Environmental Protection Agency.

In prescription products, you’ll find the active ingredient lindane, which is known to be neurotoxic as well as carcinogenic. In fact, RX-List revealed that Lindane has been linked to “seizures and deaths.” 

That being said, the natural home remedies out there have little evidence to support their ability to get rid of lice. There have been very few clinical studies, and what little research has been conducted has concluded that home remedies are ineffective and inconsistent at best. The American Academy of Pediatrician has declared that “the safety and efficacy of herbal products are currently not regulated by the FDA, and until more data are available, their use in infants and children should be avoided.” The Center for Disease Control has taken the stance that: “the CDC does not have clear scientific evidence to determine if suffocation of head lice with mayonnaise, olive oil, margarine, butter, or similar substances is an effective form of treatment.”

Thus, to get rid of lice effectively, efficiently, and safely, you’re going to need a lice treatment that, as the American Academy of Pediatrics states, “is safe, free of toxic chemicals, readily available without a prescription, easy to use, effective, and inexpensive.

Want to check out the experts behind this parents’ survival guide to lice? Click to read more articles about lice!