Head louse

Head louse
Head lice
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Phthiraptera
Family: Pediculidae
Genus: Pediculus
Species: P. humanus
Subspecies: P. h. capitis
Trinomial name
Pediculus humanus capitis
De Geer, 1767

Pediculus capitis (De Geer, 1767)

The head louse (Pediculus humanus capitis) is an obligate ectoparasite of humans.[1] Head lice are wingless insects spending their entire life on human scalp and feeding exclusively on human blood.[1] Humans and chimpanzees are the only known hosts of this specific parasite, but many other species of lice, which infest most orders of mammals and also birds, are known.[1]

The head louse differs from the related body louse in preferring to attach eggs to scalp hair rather than to clothing. Although the two species are visually identical, they do not normally interbreed, although they will interbreed in laboratory conditions. From genetic studies of them, they are thought to have diverged as species about 30,000–110,000 years ago, when many humans began to wear a significant amount of clothing.[2][3] A yet more distantly related species of hair-clinging louse, the pubic or crab louse (Pthirus pubis), also infests humans. It is visually different from the other two species and is much closer in appearance to the lice which infest other primates.[4] Lice infestation of any part of the body is known as pediculosis.[5]

Head lice differ from other hematophagic ectoparasites such as the flea in that lice spend their entire life cycle on a host.[6] Head lice cannot fly, and their short stumpy legs render them incapable of jumping, or even walking efficiently on flat surfaces.[6]


Adult morphology

Like other insects of the suborder Anoplura, adult head lice are small (1–3 mm long), dorso-ventrally flattened (see anatomical terms of location), and entirely wingless.[7] The thoracic segments are fused, but otherwise distinct from the head and abdomen, the latter being composed of seven visible segments.[8] Head lice are grey in general, but their precise color varies according to the environment in which they were raised.[8] After feeding, consumed blood causes the louse body to take on a reddish color.[8]


Male head louse, adult
Pediculus humanus var capitis.jpg

One pair of antenna, each with five segments, protrude from the insect's head. Head lice also have one pair of eyes. Eyes are present in all species within Pediculidae (the family of which the head louse is a member) but are reduced or absent in most other members of the Anoplura suborder.[7] Like other members of Anoplura, head lice mouth parts are highly adapted for piercing skin and sucking blood.[7] These mouth parts are retracted into the insect's head except during feeding.[8][9]


Six legs project from the fused segments of the thorax.[8] As is typical in Anoplura, these legs are short and terminate with a single claw and opposing "thumb".[8] Between its claw and thumb, the louse grasps the hair of its host.[8] With their short legs and large claws, lice are well adapted to clinging to the hair of their host. However, these adaptations leave them quite incapable of jumping, or even walking efficiently on flat surfaces. Lice can climb up strands of hair very quickly, allowing them to run and jump on to another host.[6]

As with other members of Anoplura, wings are entirely absent.[7]


There are seven visible segments of the louse abdomen.[8] The first six segments each have a pair of spiracles through which the insect breathes.[8] The last segment contains the anus and (separately) the genitalia.[8]

Gender differences

In male lice, the front two legs are slightly larger than the other four. This specialized pair of legs is used for holding the female during copulation. Males are slightly smaller than females and are characterized by a pointed end of the abdomen and a well-developed genital apparatus visible inside the abdomen. Females are characterized by two gonopods in the shape of a W at the end of their abdomen.

Louse eggs

Head louse egg attached to hair shaft of host

Like most insects, head lice are oviparous. Louse eggs contain a single embryo and are attached near the base of a host hair shaft.[10][11] Egg-laying behavior is temperature dependent and likely seeks to place the egg in a location that will be conducive to proper embyro development (which is, in turn, temperature dependent). In cool climates, eggs are generally laid within 1 cm of the scalp surface.[10][11] In warm climates, and especially the tropics, eggs may be laid 6 inches (15 cm) or more down the hair shaft.[12] To attach each egg, the adult female secretes a glue from her reproductive organ. This glue quickly hardens into a "nit sheath" that covers the hair shaft and the entire egg except for the operculum, a cap through which the embryo breathes.[11] The glue was previously thought to be chitin-based, but more recent studies have shown it to be made of proteins similar to hair keratin.[11]

Each egg is oval-shaped and about 0.8 mm in length.[11] They are tan to coffee-colored so long as they contain an embryo but appear white after hatching.[11][12] Typically, a hatching time of six to nine days after oviposition is cited by authors.[10][13] However, these data are from work with body lice (not head lice) that show hatching time and hatching probability are extremely temperature dependent.[14][15] As of 2008, head louse hatching time and probability in situ (i.e., on a human head) have not been carefully examined.

After hatching, the louse nymph leaves behind its egg shell, still attached to the hair shaft. The empty egg shell remains in place until physically removed by abrasion or the host, or until it slowly disintegrates, which may take months or years.[13]

SEM Images of a Hair Louse Egg
Louse egg attached to hair shaft of its host
Louse egg attached to a hair shaft of its host  
To attach each egg, the adult female secretes a glue from her reproductive organ which quickly hardens into a "nit sheath" that covers the hair shaft and the entire egg except for the operculum.
To attach each egg, the adult female secretes a glue from her reproductive organ which quickly hardens into a "nit sheath" that covers the hair shaft and the entire egg except for the operculum. 
The operculum allows the embryo to breathe
The operculum allows the embryo to breathe  
A head louse hatching from an egg
A head louse hatching from an egg  
A head louse hatching from an egg (detail)
A head louse hatching from an egg (detail)  


The term nit refers to either a louse egg or a louse nymph.[16] With respect to eggs, this rather broad definition includes the following:[17]

  • Viable eggs that will eventually hatch
  • Remnants of already-hatched eggs
  • Nonviable eggs (dead embryo) that will never hatch

This has produced some confusion in, for example, school policy (see The "no-nit" policy) because, of the three items listed above, only eggs containing viable embryos have the potential to infest or reinfest a host.[18] Some authors have reacted to this confusion by restricting the definition of nit to describe only a hatched or nonviable egg:

Louse hatching
In many languages the terms used for the hatched eggs, which were obvious for all to see, have subsequently become applied to the embryonated eggs that are difficult to detect. Thus the term "nit" in English is often used for both. However, in recent years my colleagues and I have felt the need for some simple means of distinguishing between the two without laborious qualification. We have, therefore, come to reserve the term "nit" for the hatched and empty egg shell and refer to the developing embryonated egg as an "egg".
—Ian F. Burgess (1995)[13]
The empty eggshell, termed a nit...
—J. W. Maunder (1983)[6]
...nits (dead eggs or empty egg cases)...
—Kosta Y. Mumcuoglu and others (2006)[19]

Others have retained the broad definition while simultaneously attempting to clarify its relevance to infestation:

In the United States the term "nit" refers to any egg regardless of its viability.
—Terri Lynn Meinking (1999)[12]
Because nits are simply egg casings that can contain a developing embryo or be empty shells, not all nits are infective.
—L. Keoki Williams and others (2001)[10]

Note that all these quotations appear to reject the notion that louse nymphs are nits and may indicate that the nit definition is currently in flux.

Development and nymphs

Development of Pediculus humanus humanus (body lice), which is similar to that of head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis)

Head lice, like other insects of the order Phthiraptera, are hemimetabolous.[1][9] Newly hatched nymphs will moult three times before reaching the sexually-mature adult stage.[1] Thus, mobile head lice populations contain members of up to four developmental stages: three nymphal instars, and the adult (imago).[1] Metamorphosis during head lice development is subtle. The only visible differences between different instars and the adult, other than size, is the relative length of the abdomen, which increases with each molt.[1] Aside from reproduction, nymph behavior is similar to the adult. Nymphs feed only on human blood (hematophagia), and cannot survive long away from a host.[1]

Like adult head lice, the nymph cannot fly or jump. However, there are reports of the light-weighted nymphs being blown by wind.[1] Similarly, after a molt, the discarded exoskeleton can be later shed by the host and may be mistakenly interpreted as a viable louse.[6]

The time required for head lice to complete their nymph development to the imago depends on feeding conditions. At minimum, eight to nine days is required for lice having continuous access to a human host.[1] This experimental condition is most representative of head lice conditions in the wild. Experimental conditions where the nymph has more limited access to blood produces more prolonged development, ranging from 12 to 24 days.[1]

Nymph mortality in captivity is high—about 38%—especially within the first two days of life.[1] In the wild, mortality may instead be highest in the third instar.[1] Nymph hazards are numerous. Failure to completely hatch from the egg is invariably fatal and may be dependent on the humidity of the egg's environment.[1] Death during molting can also occur, although it is reportedly uncommon.[1] During feeding, the nymph gut can rupture, dispersing the host's blood throughout the insect. This results in death within a day or two.[1] It is unclear if the high mortality recorded under experimental conditions is representative of conditions in the wild.[1]


Copulation in Pediculus humanus humanus (Pediculus humanus capitis is similar). Female is on top, with the male below. Dilation of the female's vagina has already occurred, and the male's dilator rests against his back (dorsal surface), out of the way. The male vesica, which contains the penis proper (not seen), is fully inserted into the vagina. Note the male's attachment with his specialized claws on the first leg pair to the specialized notch on the female's third leg pair.

Adult head lice reproduce sexually, and copulation is necessary for the female to produce fertile eggs. Parthenogenesis, the production of viable offspring by virgin females, does not occur in Pediculus humanus.[1] Pairing can begin within the first 10 hours of adult life.[1] After 24 hours, adult lice copulate frequently, with mating occurring during any period of the night or day.[1][20] Mating attachment frequently lasts more than an hour.[20] Young males can successfully pair with older females, and vice versa.[1]

Experiments with Pediculus humanus humanus (body lice) emphasize the attendant hazards of lice copulation. A single young female confined with six or more males will die in a few days, having laid very few eggs.[1] Similarly, death of a virgin female was reported after admitting a male to her confinement.[20] The female laid only one egg after mating, and her entire body was tinged with red—a condition attributed to rupture of the alimentary canal during the sexual act.[20] Old females frequently die following, if not during, intercourse.[20]

Females lay about three to four eggs daily.[21] During its lifespan of four weeks a female louse lays 50–150 eggs (nits).[citation needed]

Lifespan and colony persistence

A generation lasts for about one month.[citation needed]

The number of children per family, the sharing of beds and closets, hair washing habits, local customs and social contacts, healthcare in a particular area (e.g. school) and socioeconomic status were found to be significant factors in head louse infestation. Girls are two to four times more frequently infested than boys. Children between 4 and 14 years of age are the most frequently infested group.[22]



All stages are blood-feeders and bite the skin four to five times daily to feed. "To feed, the louse bites through the skin and injects saliva which prevents blood from clotting; it then sucks blood into its digestive tract. Bloodsucking may continue for a long period if the louse is not disturbed. While feeding, lice may excrete dark red feces onto the skin."[23]

Position on host

Although any part of the scalp may be colonized, lice favor the nape of the neck and the area behind the ears, where the eggs are usually laid. Head lice are repelled by light and will move towards shadows or dark-colored objects in their vicinity.[20][24]


Lice have no wings or powerful legs for jumping, so they move by using their claw-like legs to transfer from hair to hair.[23] Normally head lice infest a new host only by close contact between individuals, making social contacts among children and parent-child interactions more likely routes of infestation than shared combs, brushes, towels, clothing, beds or closets. Head-to-head contact is by far the most common route of lice transmission.


About 6–12 million people, mainly children, are treated annually for head lice in the United States alone. High levels of louse infestations have also been reported from all over the world, including Israel, Denmark, Sweden, UK, France, and Australia.[18][25]

As a disease vector

Head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis) are not known to be vectors of diseases, unlike body lice (Pediculus humanus humanus), which are known vectors of epidemic or louse-borne typhus (Rickettsia prowazeki), trench fever (Rochalimaea quintana), and louse-borne relapsing fever (Borrellia recurrentis).


Analysis of the DNA of lice found on Peruvian mummies may indicate that some diseases (like typhus) may have passed from the New World to the Old World, instead of the other way around.[26]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v Buxton, Patrick A. (1947). "The biology of Pediculus humanus". The Louse; an account of the lice which infest man, their medical importance and control (2nd ed.). London: Edward Arnold. pp. 24–72. 
  2. ^ Ralf Kittler, Manfred Kayser and Mark Stoneking (2003). "Molecular Evolution of Pediculus humanus and the Origin of Clothing" (PDF). Current Biology 13 (16): 1414–1417. doi:10.1016/S0960-9822(03)00507-4. PMID 12932325. http://www.eva.mpg.de/genetics/pdf/Kittler.CurBiol.2003.pdf. 
  3. ^ Stoneking, Mark. "Erratum: Molecular Evolution of Pediculus humanus and the Origin of Clothing". http://www.current-biology.com/content/article/fulltext?uid=PIIS0960982204009856. Retrieved 2008-03-24. 
  4. ^ Buxton, Patrick A. (1947). "The crab louse Phthirus pubis". The Louse; an account of the lice which infest man, their medical importance and control (2nd ed.). London: Edward Arnold. pp. 136–141. 
  5. ^ "pediculosis – Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary". http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pediculosis. Retrieved 2008-04-23. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Maunder, JW (1983). "The Appreciation of Lice". Proceedings of the Royal Institution of Great Britain (London: Royal Institution of Great Britain) 55: 1–31. 
  7. ^ a b c d Buxton, Patrick A. (1947). "The Anoplura or Sucking Lice". The Louse; an account of the lice which infest man, their medical importance and control (2nd ed.). London: Edward Arnold. pp. 1–4. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Buxton, Patrick A. (1947). "The Anatomy of Pediculus humanus". The Louse; an account of the lice which infest man, their medical importance and control (2nd ed.). London: Edward Arnold. pp. 5–23. 
  9. ^ a b "Lice (Pediculosis)". The Merck Veterinary Manual. Whitehouse Station, NJ USA: Merck & Co.. 2008. http://www.merckvetmanual.com/mvm/index.jsp?cfile=htm/bc/71900.htm&word=pediculosis. Retrieved 2008-10-08. 
  10. ^ a b c d Williams LK, Reichert A, MacKenzie WR, Hightower AW, Blake PA (2001). "Lice, nits, and school policy". Pediatrics 107 (5): 1011–5. doi:10.1542/peds.107.5.1011. PMID 11331679. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f Burkhart CN, Burkhart CG (2005). "Head lice: scientific assessment of the nit sheath with clinical ramifications and therapeutic options". J. Am. Acad. Dermatol. 53 (1): 129–33. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2005.01.134. PMID 15965432. 
  12. ^ a b c Meinking, Terri Lynn (May/June 1999). "Infestations". Current Problems in Dermatology 11 (3): 75–118. doi:10.1016/S1040-0486(99)90005-4. 
  13. ^ a b c Burgess IF (1995). "Human lice and their management". Advances in parasitology. Advances in Parasitology 36: 271–342. doi:10.1016/S0065-308X(08)60493-5. ISBN 9780120317363. PMID 7484466. 
  14. ^ Nuttall, George HF (1917). "The biology of Pediculus humanus". Parasitology 10: 80–185. doi:10.1017/S0031182000003747. 
  15. ^ Leeson HS (1941). "The effect of temperature upon the hatching of the eggs of Pediculus humanus corporis De Geer (Anoplura)". Parasitology 33 (2): 243–249. doi:10.1017/S0031182000024434. 
  16. ^ "nit – Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary". http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nit. Retrieved 2008-02-25. 
  17. ^ Pollack RJ, Kiszewski AE, Spielman A (2000). "Overdiagnosis and consequent mismanagement of head louse infestations in North America". Pediatr. Infect. Dis. J. 19 (8): 689–93; discussion 694. doi:10.1097/00006454-200008000-00003. PMID 10959734. 
  18. ^ a b Burgess IF (2004). "Human lice and their control". Annu. Rev. Entomol. 49: 457–81. doi:10.1146/annurev.ento.49.061802.123253. PMID 14651472. 
  19. ^ Mumcuoglu, Kosta Y.; Meinking, Terri A; Burkhart, Craig N; Burkhart, Craig G. (2006). "Head Louse Infestations: The "No Nit" Policy and Its Consequences". International Journal of Dermatology (International Society of Dermatology) 45 (8): 891–896. doi:10.1111/j.1365-4632.2006.02827.x. PMID 16911370. http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1365-4632.2006.02827.x. 
  20. ^ a b c d e f Bacot A (1917). "Contributions to the bionomics of Pediculus humanus (vestimenti) and Pediculus capitis". Parasitology 9 (2): 228–258. doi:10.1017/S0031182000006065. 
  21. ^ Michigan Head Lice Manual. State of Michigan. 2004. 
  22. ^ Mumcuoglu, Kosta Y.; Miller J, Gofin R, Adler B, Ben-Ishai F, Almog R, Kafka D, Klaus S. (1990). "Epidemiological studies on head lice infestation in Israel. I. Parasitological examination of children". International Journal of Dermatology (Palm Coast, FL: International Society of Dermatology) 29 (7): 502–506. doi:10.1111/j.1365-4362.1990.tb04845.x. PMID 2228380. http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1365-4362.1990.tb04845.x. Retrieved 2008-01-02. 
  23. ^ a b Weems, Jr., H. V.; Fasulo, T. R. (June 2007). "Human Lice: Body Louse, Pediculus humanus humanus Linnaeus and Head Louse, Pediculus humanus capitis De Geer (Insecta: Phthiraptera (=Anoplura): Pediculidae)". University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. http://entomology.ifas.ufl.edu/creatures/urban/human_lice.htm. Retrieved 2008-02-21. 
  24. ^ Nuttall, George H. F. (1919). "The biology of Pediculus humanus, Supplementary notes". Parasitology 11 (2): 201–221. 
  25. ^ Mumcuoglu, Kosta Y.; Barker CS, Burgess IF, Combescot-Lang C, Dagleish RC, Larsen KS, Miller J, Roberts RJ, Taylan-Ozkan A. (2007). "International Guidelines for Effective Control of Head Louse Infestations". Journal of Drugs in Dermatology 6 (4): 409–414. PMID 17668538. 
  26. ^ Anderson, Andrea (February 8, 2008). "DNA from Peruvian Mummy Lice Reveals History". GenomeWeb Daily News. GenomeWeb LLC. Archived from the original on 2008-02-14. http://web.archive.org/web/20080214173356/http://www.genomeweb.com/issues/news/144957-1.html. Retrieved 2008-02-21. 

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • head louse — n. see LOUSE (n. 1a) * * * …   Universalium

  • head louse — n a sucking louse of the genus Pediculus (P. humanus capitis) that lives on the human scalp * * * Pediculus humanus capitis …   Medical dictionary

  • head louse — head′ louse n. ent See under louse 1) • Etymology: 1540–50 …   From formal English to slang

  • head louse — n. see LOUSE (n. 1a) …   English World dictionary

  • head louse — noun infests the head and body of humans • Syn: ↑Pediculus capitis • Hypernyms: ↑louse, ↑sucking louse • Member Holonyms: ↑Pediculus, ↑genus Pediculus * * * nou …   Useful english dictionary

  • head louse — noun a louse which infests the hair of the human head. [Pediculus humanus capitis.] …   English new terms dictionary

  • head louse — noun Date: 1547 a sucking louse (Pediculus humanus capitis) that lives on the human scalp …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • head louse. — See under louse (def. 1). [1540 50] * * * …   Universalium

  • head louse. — See under louse (def. 1). [1540 50] …   Useful english dictionary

  • head louse — noun A parasitic insect, Pediculus humanus capitis, which lives among the hairs on the head of a human and feeds on blood …   Wiktionary

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