What Nits and Lice Look Like

It's easier to get rid of these parasites when you know what you're looking for.

At some point, most of us have received a note from our kid's school about exposure to head lice -- the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that anywhere between 6 million and 12 million kids are infested each year in the U.S.

But when you get that note, what exactly are you looking for? This is a guide.

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Appearance

Head lice have three forms: egg (nit), nymph, and adult. Here's what they look like at each stage:

- Nits: They're oval-shaped and about the size of a knot in thread. They're difficult to see, but you can feel them if you run a fingernail down the hair shaft from the scalp. Nits can be light gray, tan, yellowish, or white. "They can look just like a grain of sand, and they're not easily removed from the hair," says Paradi Mirmirani, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist with the American Academy of Dermatology. Dull yellow shells remain on the hair shaft after hatching.

- Nymph: This immature louse looks like an adult but is the size of a pinhead. They'll grow into adulthood in about a week.

- Adult: The adult head louse is about the size of a sesame seed, with six clawed legs. They're tan to grayish-white in color, but the CDC says they may look darker on people with dark hair.

Where They Live

Head lice and their nits are found almost exclusively on the scalp, particularly behind the ears, on top of the head, and near the neckline. They sometimes appear on eyelashes and brows, but this is rare.

Head lice grasp the hair shaft with hooklike claws. They don't like light, and they're fast, so you may see or feel the nits only when you closely examine your child's hair.

Grab a flashlight, and look or feel for the tiny bumps, which will be cemented firmly to the hair shaft about a quarter-inch from the scalp. They may resemble little hairspray droplets or dandruff. They can be tough to remove even after they hatch, when only the empty casings remain.

If you find nits or head lice when you're examining your kid's hair, stay calm. It's an annoying problem, but a solvable one. "Remember: Lice don't carry disease," says Dr. Mirmirani. "They're icky, yes. But they're no harm to your child's health."

Know how to properly check and treat your child for head lice. Video courtesy of Le Bonheur Children's Hospital.

Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.

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