What Do Head Lice Look Like?

Head lice infestations are a common and frustrating problem for parents and kids. Unfortunately, some kids get treated inappropriately and unnecessarily for things that look like lice, but actually aren't.

You usually only need to treat your child with a lice shampoo when you see live lice. If you only see nits and are sure there are no live lice, you can just be careful to remove all of the nits.

This article provides head lice pictures that can help you to identify when your child has live lice on their head so you can start the right treatment.

Head Lice Infestation in Long Hair

Head lice infestation in a girl with long hair
Vincent Iannelli, MD

This picture shows a young girl with a head lice infestation. Although it is hard to see it, there was a large, live louse in the shot a second before the picture was taken, which just goes to show how hard it can be to find lice sometimes, especially in children with long hair.

Adult Head Louse

Adult head louse
arlindo71 / Getty Images

This is a magnified picture of an adult head louse. In reality, mature head lice are about the size of a sesame seed.

Note the characteristic six legs of this crawling insect. If you magnified this louse even further, you might be able to see the small claws on the end of their legs that lice use to grasp hair.

Female Adult Head Louse

human head louse: pediculus humanus capitis copulation
London Scientific Films / Getty Images

The female head louse is a little "fatter" than a male.

Head Louse Magnified

Head louse
Vincent Iannelli, MD

Although this head louse is magnified, you can use the nearby strand of hair for comparison to understand how big head lice really are. This can help you to identify head lice on your child's hair during a lice infestation.

Head Lice

Hand holding hair covered in head louse

Panyawat Boontanom / Getty Images

Instead of worrying when you think your child has head lice, you should first confirm that your child actually has them. Reviewing head lice pictures like this one can help you understand what you are looking for, including live lice and nits (lice eggs) in your child's hair.

Spot the Head Louse

Head louse on a blond girl's head
Vincent Iannelli, MD

Can you spot the head louse in this picture of a young child with a head lice infestation?

Pinpointing the Louse

Vincent Iannelli, MD

This picture is of a live head louse on a girl's head, with a red circle around the louse to make identification easy.


Blurry nits on blond hair
Vincent Iannelli, MD

Nits are the eggs of lice. Nits are small, oval-shaped, usually a yellowish-white color, and are firmly attached to the side of hair shafts.

Simply having nits does not necessarily mean that your child has live lice, though, since some nits may be empty egg casings and some may have dead, non-infective lice embryos inside.

Nits that are close to your child's scalp are the ones that are most likely to be infective and are the ones that are thought to hatch into live lice, a process that takes six to nine days.

Continuing to get new nits even after you have removed nits from your child's hair is also a likely sign that your child has live lice and needs a lice treatment.

A live louse will typically lay up to eight eggs a day, so if your child only has a few nits, they likely don't have an active lice infestation.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is against no-nit policies that exclude children from school when they have lice. In fact, the AAP now states that "no healthy child should be excluded from or allowed to miss school time because of head lice." This is likely a big surprise to all of the parents who have had their kids sent home from school because of head lice.

To add to the confusion about head lice, some people only use the term nits to refer to empty egg casings and lice eggs when talking about viable eggs. Others use the term nits to refer to both viable lice eggs and empty egg casings.


Lice are extremely small—an adult is the size of a sesame seed. But you can spot them if you look carefully through your child’s hair. A full-grown louse may move. A nit (egg), will be attached to a strand of hair and will not move. If you remove the nits and they return, use a live lice treatment on your child’s hair.

Pinpointing the Nit

Vincent Iannelli, MD

This is an out-of-focus picture of a nit, or head lice egg, with a red circle around the nit to make identification easy. Did you find the nit on your own?

Lice Life Cycle

Head lice egg, nymph and adult next to a U.S. penny

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Having a hard time figuring out what you are looking for when you think your kids have lice? This picture shows the three stages of the head lice life cycle, including the egg or nit, a nymph, and an adult louse, as compared to the size of a penny for scale.

Louse Life Cycle

Head lice go through these stages:

  • A mature or adult head louse can lay up to 10 eggs or nits each day.
  • These nits, or lice eggs, hatch in about seven to 12 days. Baby lice or nymphs are about the size of a pinhead when they hatch and quickly mature into adult lice in about seven days.
  • In just a few days, adult lice are ready to mate, starting the cycle all over again. Lice have a lifespan of three to four weeks.

A proper lice treatment regimen can interrupt the life cycle and help you get rid of the lice on your child's hair.

Head Lice Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Child


Lice outbreaks are no longer considered a panic situation. In fact, your child can still go to school even if you’ve confirmed they have lice. With immediate and consistent treatment, a lice infestation can be stopped. 

Review pictures of live lice and nits to be sure you don’t confuse flakes of dandruff or something similarly harmless with the insect. Remove any nits by picking them out of the hair. Then use a prescription or over-the-counter treatment to kill adult lice. Be prepared to repeat the process until you’re sure the lice are completely gone.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are nits?

    Nits are lice eggs. They are very tiny, about the size of a knot in a strand of thread, and can easily be confused with dandruff, scabs, or even droplets from hair spray.

  • How do I know if I have lice?

    If you think you have head lice, keep an eye out for these warning signs:

    • Feeling a tickling sensation in the hair
    • Frequent itching
    • Difficulty sleeping (head lice become more active in the dark)
    • Sores on the head due to scratching, which may become infected
  • How long do lice eggs take to hatch?

    Lice eggs, called nits, take around eight or nine days to hatch. After that, it only takes about seven days for baby lice (nymphs) to grow into adult lice.

  • How do you get lice?

    Head lice are commonly transferred through head-to-head contact, such as during a sports activity. In children, lice might be transferred on the playground or during a slumber party. It's less common for lice to spread via shared clothes or belongings, but it is possible. Pets such as dogs and cats do not spread head lice.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Head lice treatment.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Head lice biology.

  3. Devore CD, Schutze GE, The Council on School Health and Committee on Infectious Diseases. Head licePediatrics. 2015;135(5):e1355-e1365. doi:10.1542/peds.2015-0746

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Head lice frequently asked questions (FAQs).