Know When To Check for Lice
Maybe your child’s scalp has been itchy. Maybe a note came home from school informing you that a few kids at school have head lice. Or maybe you heard that someone close to you is dealing with lice. You need to check your family for head lice the right way, so you know that you didn’t miss anything. Checking for head lice is a detailed process, but it’s not hard. With the right tools, the right steps, and the right preparation you can do a clinic-quality lice check at home.
Lice Check Tools
There are a few items you’ll need to collect for a lice check:
- Lice comb — A proper lice comb is not the same as a fine-toothed comb that you might use on a daily basis. A good lice comb is stainless steel, with micro-grooved teeth.
- Towel — Get an old towel, preferably a dark color. You will wipe the lice comb on the towel after each stroke, so you want to be able to see if any white or off-white insects come off.
- Hair clips — If your child has long hair, you’ll need four to six clips in order to section and hold hair.
- Plastic bag — A sealable plastic bag for containing any head lice you find.
- Good lighting — If you have a well-lit space by a window, that’s usually best. If natural light isn’t an option, a bright lamp can be just as good.
- A normal plastic comb — In addition to the lice comb, you’ll need a normal comb for detangling and dividing hair.
You may also want:
- Magnifying glass — Lice, and even lice eggs, are visible to the naked eye, but they’re very small. Many people find that a magnifying glass is helpful, especially since the process can take a little while.
- Disposable gloves — If you’re uncomfortable around small insects, you may want some disposable gloves on.
- Spray conditioner — A little conditioner will help with tangles and make the hair smoother to comb. It doesn’t actually dislodge nits, but it does help the comb move a little easier.
How to Check for Head Lice
A thorough lice check is a long process, but a simple one. Once your tools are assembled, there are just three basic steps.
1. Set up your lice check station.
Get gloves on, if you’re using them. Settle your child on a tall chair or stool, with a book or movie to keep them occupied. Adjust lighting and lay the towel over the child’s shoulders. Make sure all of your other items—lice comb, sealable plastic bag, etc.—are at hand.
2. Comb and divide the hair.
Comb the hair with a normal comb first to remove any tangles.
Then, divide the hair into four or six equal sections. Divide the left and right sides of the head down a center part, to start. Then divide each side into two or three sections, depending on how thick the child’s hair is.
While you’re combing and dividing the hair, pay attention to the scalp and the base of the hair follicles. Nits are very tiny and live lice will scatter from the light when hair is parted, but—if there is head lice—you may find all the evidence you need without rigorous combing. If so, you can continue to comb, but you may want to wait and get a head lice treatment instead.
3. Comb through one thin layer at a time.
Starting at the base of the scalp, near the neck, unclip one section, comb out a very thin row of hair, and reclip the rest of that section of hair. Spray conditioner if you’re using it, and then run the lice comb down the entire length of hair, from the scalp to the tips.
Comb each thin row of hair at least four times—from the top, bottom, left side, and right side.
Unclip the same section of hair, use your normal comb to section out another very thin row of hair, and repeat the combing process. Continue to comb the entire scalp, one small section at a time.
Lice Check: What to Look For
Head lice have three stages in their life cycle and if they are there, you are likely to find them all.
- Nits — Lice eggs (called “nits”) are very small. They look like tiny yellow or tan (occasionally brown) droplets attached to the base of the hair follicle. The female louse cements her eggs to the hair shaft very close to the scalp, because the egg needs the host’s body heat to survive.
- Nymphs and adult lice — A juvenile louse (“nymph”) looks the same as an adult louse, but slightly smaller. Adult lice are about the size of sesame seeds and can be any shade of white, tan, or gray. They are normal insects in that they have three body parts (no wings) and six legs.
Note: Lice vs. Dandruff
Head lice are not the only white-ish specks that you might find on close inspection of a child’s scalp. Mild dandruff and lice—especially lice nits—are often easily confused.
The easiest way to tell the difference, especially during a lice check, is to try to comb it away with that lice comb. Dandruff will flake away from the scalp easily. Nits are much more difficult to scrape off of the hair shaft.
Schedule Weekly Lice Checks
Whether you just completed a lice treatment, or your child’s head has been itchy, or someone close to you has been diagnosed with head lice: plan on conducting lice checks once a week for a few weeks.
Because lice eggs hatch after about seven days and one female louse can lay up to six eggs per day. That means that if the most thorough lice check or treatment misses even one female louse, she may have laid up to 42 eggs by the next weekly check.
Additionally, most lice treatments are not effective on nits. If the eggs are not found and combed out, a new generation of lice will hatch in about a week.
Lice Check FAQs
A few questions that our experts commonly hear regarding lice checks:
Is it best to check for lice with wet or dry hair?
If you’re just checking for head lice, hair can be wet or dry. It’s one less step, and so generally easier, to check for lice with dry hair. It’s also easier to keep hair clipped in place when it is dry.
If you’re trying to remove lice with only a lice comb, wet hair is generally preferred because it slows down adult lice. However, using a lice treatment to kill lice before combing is much easier and more effective than just wet hair.
How long can you have lice before noticing?
Most people don’t notice head lice until 4 to 6 weeks after the infestation has begun. The first generation is usually just a few insects, so the symptoms are minimal. Additionally, different people have different sensitivities to itching and other symptoms.
How do you know if you got all the lice out?
The best way to know that lice have been completely removed is to use a proven lice treatment, thoroughly comb through the hair, and then repeat both seven days later. Conduct another lice check in another seven days. If there are no new nits or lice by the third inspection, then you got all the lice out.
For more head lice FAQ, see “Head Lice Myths & Facts” →
How to Treat Head Lice
If you start to notice lice and/or nits as you comb through your child’s hair, you’ll probably want to stop and get a lice treatment product right away. There are two types of options:
- Over the counter products like lice shampoos and creams are available at most drug stores. These products can be helpful, but their effectiveness is waning as most strains of head lice in the West have developed a resistance to the two active ingredients in these medications.
- Natural head lice treatments are just as effective against head lice, and often even more effective against super lice. Some “natural” treatments, however, are just old wives’ tales, so it’s important to know which are actually proven.
Whichever treatment you decide to use, be sure to follow the instructions exactly. Many call for a second application after one week—don’t skip it! Very few lice treatments even claim to be effective against nits, which is why that second treatment is needed.
For all the details, see “How to Get Rid of Head Lice” →
What is Head Lice?
Head lice are a type of tiny, parasitic insect that live on human scalps and feed on human blood. Lice do not jump or fly, and they are not known to carry disease. Head lice infect clean and dirty hair equally, so they are not a sign of poor hygiene.
To learn more, see, “Lice Symptoms, Causes, and Prevention” →
How to Prevent Lice
Preventing lice on an individual can really only be done by avoiding hair-to-hair or head-to-head contact with an infested person, and avoiding hats or other hair accessories worn by someone with an active case of head lice.
As most people don’t know they have head lice for several weeks, however, this is extremely difficult.
You can prevent reinfestation after a case of head lice by making sure that the lice treatment you used was effective. That means completing the treatment excatly as directed and thoroughly washing any infected items.
You can prevent the spread of head lice once you know you or a loved one are infected by alerting everyone that you’ve been physically close to in the past week and by conducting a thorough treatment. Be sure to do a lice check especially on other people in the home.
Checking for Head Lice
There are clinics and salons that will do head lice checks, but with a few simple tools and a few easy steps you can do a thorough lice check at home. It can be time consuming, but it isn’t difficult.
If you need to do a lice check, your first step is to get whichever tools you don’t already have. If you’ve never had head lice in the house before, you’ll definitely need a lice comb. You may already have everything else you need.
Just remember, if you do find lice, to start treatment as soon as possible. You can remove lice by very meticulously combing out every last louse and nit, but it is much easier to use a treatment that kills lice and loosens nits before combing.