Gallery of Head Lice Pictures

Nit-Picking or Dandruff Watch? Shedding Light on Head Lice

Head Lice Nit

Tiny Little Sign of Trouble. (c) Melanie Martinez

Head lice get a pretty bad rap around the schoolyard. It turns out head lice aren't as bad as you might think, and head lice certainly don't spread as easily as school officials may have you believe.

Diligent nit-picking is the most cost-effective and safest way to keep nasty little head lice off junior's noggin. But, what do these things really look like? Dive into the gallery to see the difference between nits and dandruff, and an up-close look at one of the ugliest critters you'll ever see.

Head lice eggs -- called nits -- are only a millimeter long (sometimes smaller) and shaped like tear-drops. Unlike dandruff, these little buggers clamp on tight to the hair shaft. They only come off with encouragement. Sometimes, you literally have to pull them off the hair with your fingernail.

Seeing nits isn't enough reason to run out and buy lice shampoo. Nits only tell you that head lice used to be there. They don't tell you if head lice are present now. In fact, if the nits are more than half an inch away from the scalp, it's a good chance the nits are old and the infestation isn't active anymore.


Severe dandruff
Dandruff isn't the Same as Nits. (c) Melanie Martinez

Dandruff differs from nits in a few ways:

  1. Dandruff particles are various sizes
    Nits are pretty uniform in size (half to one millimeter each).
  2. Dandruff falls off pretty easily
    Remember all those TV commercials where the dandruff sufferer would brush flakes off his shoulder? Nits don't fall off -- they're on for good. If you want nits off the hair shaft, you have to pull them off.
  3. Dandruff goes everywhere
    Nits tend to be more concentrated in areas where head lice like to live. Head lice like heat, so they live at the base of the neck and behind the ears. Dandruff doesn't really have a favorite place to live, so you'll find the flakes all over the head.

Female Head Louse

(c) Reed & Carnrick Pharmaceuticals

There's nothing pretty about a head louse. This female is an example of the nasty little things you'll see scurrying around when you find a live infestation. She'll be about 2.5 to 3.5 millimeters long, which is about the size of a grain of rice.

Basically, if you see little grains of rice running around your kid's scalp, you've just found an active infestation of head lice, and will have to treat it.

Looking Into the Nit

One Hairy Head Lice Egg. Courtesy of the CDC/Dr. Dennis D. Juranek

Notice the egg shape, which looks like a tear drop shape when it's so small. That's the shape you're looking for on the head.

If you're not itching yet, notice the red eyes on the larvae. Nasty little critters, aren't they?

Birth of a Head Louse

A Star is Born -- or at Least Hatched. Courtesy of the CDC

There's nothing uglier than a head louse, except maybe a baby head louse (and pubic lice...that's for another gallery). This hatchling will leave behind an empty shell that still looks like a nit. Nits by themselves are not enough to claim an infestation, although many schools still consider the presence of nits justification for sending a student home.

Louse on a Cotton Swab

Head Lice Size Obvious Against a Cotton Swab. (c) Eran Finkle

Seeing a louse sitting on a cotton swab shows just how small the critters really are. The only way to be sure of a current infestation is to see live lice on the scalp. Seeing nits is not enough.

When you see live lice, you'll know it's time to treat them.