What Lice Look Like: Pictures of Lice (Color, Size, and More)
Discover exactly what lice look like with this informative article filled with more than 30 pictures of lice, and easily identify lice using these these five distinct features:
Actual Lice Size
Lice Signs & Symptoms
There are three types of lice that can live on humans: head lice, body lice, and pubic lice. Head lice is by far the most common, affecting about 12 million Americans every year. It is the second most common childhood ailment in the US, second only to the common cold.
Head lice live exclusively in human hair and rarely come off the head unless physically removed. They feed on human blood several times a day, but fortunately do not spread diseases. Head lice are no respecter of persons, and anybody can get head lice, no matter their age, race, or cleanliness.
Though this is far from typical, here is an example of a severe (and obvious) head lice infestation:
A fourth type of lice making big news these days is a new strain of head lice: super lice. Super lice and regular head lice are virtually the same bugs, except super lice have mutations that make them (and their eggs) extremely difficult to kill. These super lice are becoming the “new” and more prominent strain of head lice.
How Can You Tell The Difference Between Regular Head Lice and Super Lice?
Regular head lice and super lice look and act exactly the same; the only difference is that super lice will not die using traditional treatments, so you should always use a lice treatment that works on BOTH regular lice and super lice (I share some recommendations below).
Lice In Hair
The legs of head lice are designed with claws on the end of each “foot,” designed perfectly to grip hair strands without falling off.
Of course, you can’t see these little claws without a microscope, but you can see them in action. Lice grip onto hair and tightrope walk their way up and down strands easily. If you see a bug maneuvering this easily in hair, it’s certainly lice.
#1: Lice Color
Let’s get this first myth out of the way right at the beginning. Head lice are not only tan or white. Head lice are a wide variety of colors including dark brown, light brown, tan, gray, red, and even translucent white! You can imagine those mostly transparent lice are especially difficult to see and they are extremely common.
These are all lice I have pulled off people and photographed in my lice center.
Why are there different colors of head lice?
Head lice are experts at blending in, and that includes blending in with both hair and skin color. When head lice first hatch, they are almost completely see-through.
As lice reach adulthood, they tend to darken in color according to their surroundings.
For those with blonde or light brown hair, you’ll typically see tan or light brown adult lice.
For those with black hair, you’ll typically find dark gray to black lice.
Why are some head lice red?
Don’t be terribly horrified if you find a few head lice that are red. Head lice are like vampires, feeding on human blood multiple times a day! In fact, if lice fall off the head and cannot feed on human blood, they usually die within 24 hours.
After lice feed, they get nice and fat on blood. Their stomachs fill up with this blood and their entire abdomen plumps up.
The creepiest part is that the red color seeps into every part of their body. Shortly after feeding, lice appear completely red. It kind of looks like something out of a horror film, but it’s all real.
#2: What Lice Look Like
Lice Shape and Appearance
The defining characteristics of both super lice and regular lice are:
- Six legs attached to upper ⅓ of body (not attached to their abdomen)
- No wings
- Varying colored (see above) bodies, darker body as they get older and after they die
- Black stomach/intestines visible through translucent body (larger after feeding)
- Tapered/claw-like legs
Ages and Stages
Initially lice are laid in eggs (called “nits”) in the hair. They hatch in about 7-10 days and are very small. Small baby lice are called nymphs. Nymphs have all the same features of adult lice, including 6 legs, but the difference is they are EXTREMELY small, almost invisible to the naked eye. Additionally, they are almost entirely clear (see picture below). Usually the only thing that you can spot on transparent lice is their dark brown or black stomach.
#3: Lice Actual Size
You’ve probably seen lots of pictures of head lice close up, but it can be difficult to determine the actual size of lice from these types of photos. Some sites claim that lice are the size of a sesame seed, but that’s not entirely true. Adult head lice may be the size of a sesame seed (about 3mm long), but nymphs are much smaller, usually closer to only 0.5mm long. It is these very small lice that are so difficult to spot.
What is the actual size of lice? Here is a lice bug on the tip of a finger.What is the actual size of lice? Here is a lice bug on the tip of a finger.
#4: Lice Eggs
Lice eggs, also known as “nits,” are one of the first signs of a head lice infestation. Lice lay between six and ten of these nits in the hair every day, and it adds up quickly. Nits are often mistaken for dandruff or dirt in the hair because they are small and their shiny appearance can make them look white.
Nits are most commonly found in the “hot spots” of the head. These hot spots are the places that lice most like to lay their eggs. The hot spots are behind both ears, on the nape of the neck, and on the crown of the head.
A common misunderstanding is that nits are white. Nits have a shiny appearance and can appear white, especially in dark hair, but most lice eggs are not actually white. They vary in color, from light golden to dark brown, depending on how close they are to hatching. (You can learn more by clicking through to my Dead vs. Live Nits article.)
They are extremely small, just a little smaller than a poppyseed. They are also teardrop shaped (not circular) and glued on the side of the hair strand.
The tell-tale sign of nits is that they cannot be flicked, blown, or brushed off. Aside from a high-quality lice comb, the only way to remove a lice egg from the hair strand is to squeeze it between two fingers and manually drag it down the entire strand.
As we discussed above, lice eggs range from golden to very dark brown in color before they hatch. This dark color is the nymph growing inside. After the nymph hatches out of the egg, the eggshell remains on the hair strand and appears “white” in dark hair. Similar to a chicken egg, after you crack open the egg and remove the insides, all you have left is a white shell.
#5: Lice Signs & Symptoms
Itchy Scalp (some do, some don’t)
Talking about lice makes most heads itch. (You’re probably itching your head at this very moment). However, when I say “lice cause an itchy scalp,” I’m not talking about a little scratch here and there. After a full month of having head lice, most people’s heads begin driving them crazy. The itch is a deep, internal nagging that you just can’t seem to scratch enough to satisfy.
Most people assume the itchiness is caused by lice moving around on the head, but it is actually the result of an allergic reaction to lice saliva, which is why it takes most people a full month to begin itching.
Each time lice feed on your blood, a small amount of their saliva shoots into your scalp. A little bit of this saliva goes unnoticed, but after a month of this repeated feeding, your head develops an allergic response to the lice bites and saliva, which causes these symptoms.
Itching Around the Ears and Neck
Similar to the deep “itch you just can’t scratch” feeling on the scalp, many people have the same feeling in the hairline near their ears and at their neck. This makes sense when you consider that behind the ears and neck are the “hot spots” where lice prefer to lay their eggs.
Neck Rash or “Lice Bites”
Another sign of lice (also caused by an allergic reaction to lice saliva) is a neck rash or red bumps on the neck. For many people, this sign can show up even before the itching begins. Many people refer to this symptom as “lice bites.”
Most commonly, a blotchy, painless (or itchy) rash develops at the nape of the neck in the hair. The rash sometimes spreads to below the hairline at the nape of the neck. More severe neck rashes like this usually itch quite a bit.
Rash Behind the Ears
Rashes behind the ears are also quite common. These rashes are typically bright red, blotchy red, or also have a “lice bite” appearance.
Restless at Night, Sleepy During the Day
Parents, if you see your child scratching her head frequently while they’re sleeping, it is a tell-tale sign of head lice!
Lice are nocturnal, which means they do most of their moving and feeding at night. This movement and feeding usually increases feelings of discomfort and itching in the night hours. It is not uncommon for someone with lice to “sleep all night,” but wake up completely exhausted because they have been scratching their head all night, which in turn leads to sleepiness and fatigue during the day.
If It's Lice...
If what you are finding is lice, the most important thing for you to remember is that most of today’s head lice are super lice. That means the traditional treatments and pesticides at the store won’t kill them. In fact, the most “popular” treatments are usually among the very worst at killing lice, so don’t be fooled by big name brands or hollow promises of “killing super lice” on the treatment box.
For years, the only place you could find a good lice treatment kit that killed both head lice and super lice was at a professional lice center. Fortunately many of these professional centers have started selling their products online.
I’ve reviewed just about every lice product on the market, these are the best ones:
(A quick disclosure: these are affiliate links, and I do earn a commission from qualifying purchases; however, all of my reviews are based solely on the quality of the products.)
The Ladibugs Lice Elimination Kit comes with a serum that kills both lice and super lice. It also comes with an enzyme mousse that helps loosen lice eggs, making them much easier to remove. Ladibugs is a one-and-done kit, which means you have everything you need for one person in one kit. The enzyme mousse can be used multiple times over several days to remove lice eggs.
Lice Clinics Lice Remover Kit comes with an easy dispenser and is probably the most straightforward treatment to use. It kills all lice within 20 minutes. You’ll need to retreat in about 10 days.
The best natural treatment at killing super lice is Head Hunters Pro WipeOut (make sure you get the kit with the Pro-Lice Comb). Head Hunters is the best treatment for those with thick hair. It will leave your hair feeling and smelling amazing.
Enzyme-based treatments can be the right choice as well. Enzyme treatments take a little longer to kill head lice and only work if used multiple times, but in exchange, they break down the glue that holds lice eggs in place. The best enzyme lice treatment kit is Fairy Tales Lice Elimination Kit because it comes with the Nit Free Terminator comb and a prevention spray.
Lice Eggs 101
One of the biggest mistakes people make is not removing all the lice eggs from their child’s hair. You’ll find a lot of products advertising “kills lice eggs,” but don’t be fooled by these gimmicks.
Some lice treatments may kill some eggs, but no treatment product today kills all lice eggs. Over the years, both lice and lice eggs have developed resistance to treatments. Nits have a thick, waxy coating that makes them nearly impossible to kill.
The best thing you can do to “kill” lice eggs is manually remove them from the head. Once lice eggs are pulled from the hair and thrown into the trash, they will not be able to hatch because you have removed them from their heat source.
The fastest, easiest, and most effective way to get rid of lice eggs permanently is with a professional-level head lice comb.
The best lice and nit comb on the market is the Nit-Free Terminator Comb. If you ask any lice professional, they will almost certainly tell you this is the comb they use. The teeth of this comb are spaced tightly together, but the real secret is that these teeth have small spirals, creating a “barbed wire” effect on lice and nits, catching them and dragging them down the entire hair strand and out of your child’s hair.
How to Get Rid of Head Lice
If you discover lice or lice eggs in your child’s hair, then undoubtedly you will want to get rid of it quickly. Here are the steps to getting rid of head lice fast.
- Use a treatment that works on BOTH lice and super lice such as Ladibugs, Lice Clinics, Head Hunters, or Fairy Tales.
- Remove all lice eggs with the Nit Free Terminator Comb.
- Check all family members for head lice with a lice comb or treat all family members with an enzyme shampoo like LiceLogic Clear & Free Shampoo.
- Keep checking with a lice comb and retreat 10 days later, not a week later. Lice eggs on the head hatch after 7-10 days, if you retreat or recheck after a week, you may miss something that hasn’t hatched.
- Clean your house using the following principles as a guide or check out the article Lice Cleaning Checklist to Get Rid of Lice in Your Home.
Cleaning Your Home
Think 48 Hours
Focus on cleaning items that have been in contact with the lice-infested individual within the last 48 hours. Lice cannot live longer than 48 hours on household items.
Do Not Use Lice Sprays
Lice sprays do not work on super lice. Multiple scientific studies have shown that almost all lice in the US are resistant to the pesticide found in lice sprays. The only lice sprays that work for killing super lice are enzyme lice sprays like LiceLogic Clear & Free All Purpose Spray.
You can vacuum surfaces such as couches and mattresses to suck up lice.
Clean Your Brushes
Soak hair brushes, combs, and hair accessories (such as hairbands, clips, and headbands) used by the person with lice in hot water (135° F or greater) for at least ten minutes. (I do not recommend boiling brushes and combs, however, because they will melt.)
Items in the Dryer
Put items in the dryer for forty minutes on high heat.
Bag Items for Two Days
Lice can’t live without blood for very long, so anything that could have lice on it will be safe to use again after 48 hours. If an item is something that you cannot run through the dryer, like a favorite stuffed toy or delicate clothing, you can seal it away in a bag for a couple days.
Don’t Forget Carseats
Vacuum your car seats!
Now you’re finally armed with all the info you need on the color, size, shape, and other characteristics of both lice and lice eggs! This information will not only help you figure out if you or someone in your family is affected by head lice, but also how to begin treating it so you can get back to feeling happy and healthy.
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