How Long Can Lice Live Without a Host? Unraveling the Mystery

Head lice can be a common concern for many individuals, especially for parents with school-aged children. Understanding the life cycle of these pesky creatures and how long they can survive without a human host is essential for effectively treating and preventing their spread.

Lice are parasitic insects that feed on human blood and require a host to survive. According to the CDC, nymphs, or young head lice, can only live for several hours without feeding on a human. On the other hand, nits, or lice eggs, generally die within a week in the absence of a human host and cannot hatch at temperatures lower than that of the human scalp.

By learning about the survival limits of lice without a host, people can better understand how to eliminate these parasites and reduce the risk of transmission. Additionally, this knowledge can help ease concerns regarding potential infestations from wigs, hairpieces, or shared headwear.

Life Cycle of Lice

Eggs and Nits

  • Eggs: Also known as “nits,” lice eggs are laid close to the scalp by adult females.
  • Appearance: Nits are oval-shaped and about the size of a pinhead, often appearing tan or yellow.
  • Incubation: Nits generally die within a week away from their human host and cannot hatch at a temperature lower than that close to the human scalp1.

Example: Children often have head lice due to close hair-to-hair contact at schools or playgrounds.

Nymphs

  • Nymph: A young louse that hatches from the nit.
  • Development: The nymph molts three times before becoming an adult.
  • Duration: Nymphs can live only for several hours without feeding on a human1.

Adult Lice

  • Adults: Fully-grown lice that have molted three times from nymphs.
  • Feeding: Adult head lice can live only a day or so off the human head without blood for feeding1.
  • Size: Adults are about the size of a sesame seed, and their bodies are tan to grayish-white.
  • Lifespan: Adult lice can live up to 30 days on a person’s body and must feed on blood several times daily to stay alive2.

Example: To detect head lice, a fine-toothed comb is often used to search for adult lice and their eggs.

Eggs/Nits Nymphs Adult Lice
Lifespan Die within a week1 Several hours1 Up to 30 days2
Feeding Not applicable Requires human blood1 Requires human blood several times daily2
Pros and Cons of Comb Method

Pros

  • Non-invasive
  • Inexpensive

Cons

  • Time-consuming
  • May not detect all lice or nits

Finding and Identifying Lice

Signs and Symptoms

Lice are parasitic insects that live on the human scalp and feed on blood. They cause itching and discomfort. Some signs of a lice infestation include:

  • Itching: The most common symptom, caused by lice bites and saliva.
  • Visible lice: Lice are small, flat, wingless insects with six legs. Adult lice are roughly the size of a sesame seed and are white or tan.
  • Nits: Lice eggs, located close to the scalp, are oval and smaller than the sesame seed-sized lice. They can be mistaken for dandruff or hair products.

If you suspect head lice, inspect the hair and scalp closely. Use a fine-toothed comb and magnifying lens to improve your chances of finding them 1.

Common Misconceptions

There are several misconceptions about how head lice spread and can be treated:

  • Myth 1: Lice jump from head to head. Lice cannot fly or jump. They spread through direct head-to-head contact or through personal items like combs, hair accessories, and hats.

  • Myth 2: Home remedies are effective. Most home remedies, such as mayonnaise or vinegar, are not proven to be effective in treating lice infestations.

  • Myth 3: Lice only infest dirty hair. Head lice can infest anyone, regardless of personal hygiene.

Remember, diagnosing head lice is best done by finding a live nymph or adult louse on the scalp or hair of a person 2. To treat head lice effectively, follow guidelines from reputable sources such as the CDC3.

How Long Can Lice Live Without a Host?

On Inanimate Objects

Head lice are parasites that depend on human blood for survival. They have difficulty living on inanimate objects due to their reliance on human hosts. For example, nymphs (young head lice) can only survive for a few hours without feeding on a human’s blood. Furthermore, lice eggs (nits) will typically die within a week when not attached to a human host and cannot hatch at temperatures lower than those found near the human scalp1.

Some common objects where lice can be found, albeit briefly, include:

  • Brushes
  • Combs
  • Hats
  • Scarves
  • Headphones

Optimal Conditions for Survival

Lice survival depends on temperature, blood supply, and proximity to human hosts. Adult lice can live up to 30 days on a human head, but without blood, they die within 1-2 days2. Optimal conditions for lice include:

  • A human host to feed on
  • A temperature close to that of the human scalp

In comparison, lice are less likely to survive on inanimate objects due to the lack of a human host and difficulties maintaining the ideal temperature. The table below compares lice survival on hosts vs. objects:

Location Survival Time
Human Host 30 days
Inanimate Objects 1-2 days

To minimize the risk of lice spreading or surviving on objects, make sure to:

  • Avoid head-to-head contact
  • Wash or dry items at temperatures higher than 130°F3
  • Limit lice exposure to items such as brushes, combs, hats, scarves, and headphones

By understanding how lice survive away from hosts and taking preventative measures, one can significantly reduce the risk of lice transmission and infestations.

Prevention and Treatment

Preventing Transmission

Preventing the transmission of head lice is essential to avoid infestations. Limiting close head-to-head contact, especially among children, helps reduce the spread. Some useful prevention methods include:

  • Not sharing combs, brushes, headbands, and hats
  • Avoiding direct contact with items that have been on the head of someone with lice
  • Regularly checking children’s scalps for lice and nits

Over-the-Counter Options

Several over-the-counter (OTC) options are available for treating head lice. Some popular choices are:

  • Pyrethrin-based products (e.g., RID)
  • Permethrin-based products (e.g., Nix)

Pros:

  • Easy to find in stores
  • Affordable
  • Generally safe when used as directed

Cons:

  • Some lice have developed resistance to these treatments
  • May not kill all nits, requiring a second application

Prescription Treatments

In cases where OTC treatments don’t work, prescription options can be employed. These include:

  • Malathion lotion (Ovide)
  • Benzyl alcohol lotion (Ulesfia)

According to the CDC, malathion is pediculicidal (kills live lice) and partially ovicidal (kills some lice eggs). A second treatment is recommended 7-9 days after the first one.

Alternative Home Remedies

While not supported by scientific research, some people use home remedies to treat lice. Examples include:

  • Mayonnaise or olive oil treatments
  • Essential oil mixtures (e.g., tea tree, lavender)

Pros:

  • Inexpensive
  • Readily available ingredients

Cons:

  • Limited effectiveness
  • Insufficient evidence to support their use
Method Pros Cons
OTC Treatments Affordable, accessible Possible resistance, may need reapplication
Prescription Potentially more effective Requires a doctor’s prescription
Home Remedies Inexpensive, easy to find Limited effectiveness, lack of scientific evidence

In conclusion, prevention efforts are crucial in minimizing head lice infestations. Treatment options range from OTC products to prescription solutions and alternative remedies, each with its own set of pros and cons. Consistently monitoring and maintaining good hygiene practices will help to keep lice at bay.

Myths and Misconceptions

One common misconception is that lice are a sign of poor personal hygiene. In reality, lice can infest anyone, regardless of cleanliness. Lice are simple parasitic insects that require blood to survive.

  • Myth: Lice indicate dirtiness
  • Fact: Lice can infest anyone

Adult head lice can only live without a host for about a day or two, as they need blood meals to survive. Nymphs, or young lice, can only last a few hours without feeding on a human. Nits, or lice eggs, typically die within a week if they’re not close to the human scalp.

Some people may think that over-the-counter treatments are always effective in eliminating lice. However, some lice have become resistant to these treatments. In such cases, it is essential to consult a health care provider and follow their advice.

An example of a treatment-resistant lice issue:

  • Over-the-counter treatment: May not be effective
  • Health care provider advice: Necessary

There’s a belief that lice can easily spread through sharing items like hats, combs, or headphones. Although lice can, currently, the main mode of transmission is head-to-head contact.

Here’s a comparison table of lice transmission modes:

Transmission Mode Likelihood
Head-to-head High
Sharing items Low

Finally, the use of conditioner for lice detection and elimination is somewhat controversial. While conditioner can make combing more manageable and may immobilize lice, it is not a proven treatment. Lice are contagious and require appropriate action, which may include medical treatments and thorough cleaning of the home and belongings.

In summary, addressing common myths and misconceptions about lice can help spread accurate information and promote effective treatment strategies.

Footnotes

  1. CDC – Lice – Head Lice – General Information – Frequently Asked Questions 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

  2. CDC – Lice – Body Lice – Biology 2 3 4 5

  3. https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/lice/head/schools.html 2

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Head Louse

 

Subject:  Identify
Geographic location of the bug:  Georgia
Date: 01/25/2018
Time: 05:24 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  This has been found in family members hair last few months since my teen sons friend spent the night. Now they have multiplied, mostly in my daughter’s dreads she just started, a two in teen son and a couple in other sons hair. We have used special sprays and shampoos lice combed them out washed all clothing and bedding and still finding them.
How you want your letter signed:  Frustrated family

Human Head Louse

Dear Frustrated family,
This is a Human Head Louse and it sounds like you are doing what needs to be done to eradicate them from your family and your home.

Letter 2 – Head Louse

 

Subject: head louse??
Location: ohio
November 26, 2015 8:02 am
dear bugman
please help me! i found this one bug in my hair and i when i pulled it out, it was under my fingernail, so i think it is a little squished. it was also dead and not moving.
a couple weeks ago, a girl at my school had lice. i became paranoid and had my parents check my head. they found nothing. i thought i was safe until now.
after finding this, i had my mom check my head and she found nothing. i compaired it to pictures of lice online and it looks similar, but not exactly the same. i havent found pictures that look like this yet, but it has similar feautures to lice. i also sent it to my friend who had lice for over a year, and he said its not one.
my head hasn’t been abnormally itchy and i have no bumps or bites on my neck shoulders or head. please help me asap and tell if this is a louse and what i should do!!
one pic is zoomed in, one is not.
Signature: tannith

Head Louse
Head Louse

Dear Tannith,
We are sorry to be the bearer of bad news on Thanksgiving, but this is indeed a Head Louse.  There are over the counter remedies available at the pharmacy.

i only found one bug in my hair. there are no other bugs in my hair or eggs. is it possible that i just had one bug and no more?

That is a possibility, but in our opinion, it is unlikely.

Letter 3 – Head Louse

 

Subject: Help me find this bug
Location: My hair
July 7, 2017 9:17 pm
I keep finding these bugs in my hair sometimes but I am unsure of what they are my head is itchy and I have thought it is because of dandruff but after finding these in my head I’m not so sure please help me I need to know what to do
Signature: -anon

Head Louse

This is a Head Louse.  You should consult with a pharmacist to see what treatment options are available to you.

Letter 4 – Human Head Louse

 

Subject: BUG In hair!
Location: Arizona
October 13, 2016 5:28 pm
Hi, I was brushing my daughters hair and found a bug on the back of her scalp. It didn’t move when I pulled the hair aside to look at it & after careful inspection of the rest of her head there are no other bugs or nits. While my first inclination was that it was lice (since she literally just started school last week) there are no other symptoms or signs of lice…after doing my own research, i can’t find anything other than info on lice. Please help me! I’m freaking out!
Signature: Worried Mom

Human Louse
Human Louse

Dear Worried Mom,
This is a Louse, and it is very possible that your daughter picked it up at school. 

Letter 5 – Human Lice

 

Subject: Help
Location: Shower Floor
June 30, 2016 7:23 am
Found these in the shower after showering . What can they be!
Signature: Thanks

Louse
Louse

You have Lice.

Letter 6 – Human Lice we believe

 

Parasites (2nd try)
October 17, 2010
I took away some pics but there are deep red ones that were skinny long types too. Dr’s don’t know what the are but larva was on hair & follicles thoughout body burrwing in skin as if it was threaded under now but adults only on scalp (they didn’t believe me that’s why it was allowed to mature) used lice treatment but didn’t work so if you could give me any info I would desperately appreciate it! When i first thought it was a parasite started last year June yet noticed first symptoms of being sick a couple of years back. Had been in northern NJ, Penn at Lake 26 days before first skin eruption but  I live in northern CA-Sonoma County, laundry is on back deck under half roof open to redwood tree & a wild raccoon & squrriel was seen on clothes before, I also held a baby snake not knowing it’s gut was busted open and only used hand sanitizer @ time. Mexico over the Texas border plus Cabo San Lucus, Az desert were I was bit standing by a Yucca plant on foot leaving 3 puncture marks & Taos high desert where I fed Mag Pies & other birds on the same table we would sit at and have coffee plus took off the snow to make homemade icream) & breakfast (I’m careful today about germs & bugs micro world and sanitation), Hawaii caves and Tahiti the Atolls with wild chickens + Moorea  thatched roof bungalow all were I have been before getting sick but the bugs are the only tangible things fir the docs to go on as I have many skin blisters where it felt on fire, things in nostrils & too many symptoms I don’t think you would be interested in but I’m sorry I can’t be of more help in the identity process as I don’t know where I got them plus there are not pics but there were ones with crossed thatched wings    Long and narrow all bug range from pinhead to about 3mm. Thank you for you time-Chante’

Human Lice we believe

Dear Chante’,
We sympathize with your situation, and many of the things you have included in your email are not related to the problem of the creatures depicted in your photographs.  They appear to our unschooled eyes to be Human Lice, , but in matters that require a medical diagnosis, we always urge the person to seek professional medical attention.  You can show the professionals the images on BugGuide for comparison.

Human Lice we believe

Thank you again, I will show my Dr. your website.
Sincerely, Chante’

Letter 7 – Human Louse

 

This bug was found on an item of clothing (right before putting it on). It had somehow burrowed within the clothing material. Your help is much appreciated.
charlie

Hi Charlie,
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you have a Human Louse, probably Pediculus humanus. Hogue has something to say about this bane to humankind. “Like the bedbug, this menace to human beings is not as prevalent today as in the past because of improved public and personal hygiene. Yet it still pops up here and there, most often among school children and indigents, and it remains the lone true companion of the hobo. This is a sucking louse found only on humans, to whom it causes much discomfort in exchange for its meal of blood. Two forms are known: the head louse infests the hair of the scalp, and the body louse lives in clothing near the body surface. Both are small (1/16 to 3/16 in.) and oval, with pointed legs. Unfed individuals are flat and yellowish to medium brown in color; after injesting blood they are swollen and show a dark clot of blood in the abdomen. Bites of the Human Louse cause a slight local reaction accompanied by itching. … In the vernacular, the Human Louse is known as the ‘Cootie.’ Its eggs, which are firmly attached to the hairs of the head and body, are the familiar ‘nits.'”

Letter 8 – Human Louse

 

Subject: Worried
Location: Missouri
October 4, 2015 9:07 am
Please help! I hope this isn’t what I think it is..
Signature: Worried and grossed out

Human Louse
Human Louse

Dear Worried and grossed out,
If you think that this is a Human Louse, you are correct.  There are many over the counter remedies available at the pharmacy.

Letter 9 – Human Louse

 

Subject: Found on body then in hair
Location: Arizona U.S.A
November 11, 2015 9:34 pm
I took a shower in the morning and I found a wierd bug on my chest so I thought I got rid of it when it disappeared then I went with a normal day, the next day I was checking my hair and found the bug in my hair!! I only found one but I don’t know if there’s one there’s more so I checked my hair thoroughly and didn’t find any more.. Does it bite? Does it multiply? Is it dangerous? It was very small, does it grow?
Signature: Sky

Louse
Louse

Dear Sky,
There is no delicate way to put this.  You have Lice.  If you had two, there are likely more.  They do bite and they do multiply.  They are not known vectors for disease and they do not grow larger.  There are many commercial products available over the counter at the pharmacy.

Letter 10 – Human Louse

 

Subject: Weird bug on my face
Location: New York Queens
December 11, 2015 9:20 pm
I was just casually sitting in my room at around 11 pm and I go to use the bathroom and look in the mirror and see this on the side on my face. What is it? This is the clearest picture of it. It was still alive and was moving so it was difficult to take the picture.
Signature: -Amy

Human Louse
Human Louse

Dear Amy,
This is a Human Louse, a blood-sucking external parasite.  If there was one, there may be more.  There are many over the counter treatments available at the pharmacy.  Your submission will go live to our site over the holidays when we are away from the office.

Letter 11 – Human Louse

 

Subject: Head lice or nah?
Location: Ireland
January 23, 2016 8:08 am
I found this bug in my bed the other bight and i think it looks like headlice, i asked a few people and they all said it wasnt but im not too sure, the only thing thats weird is that its very big for headlice, my head was itchy the past few days but i think it might just be me paranoid, but idk my head isnt itchy anymore so like help pls
Signature: Idk

Louse
Louse

Dear Idk,
This is definitely a Human Louse, and chances are good that if you found one, there are more.

Authors

  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

8 thoughts on “How Long Can Lice Live Without a Host? Unraveling the Mystery”

  1. Dear WTB and Chante’ – After volunteering at a thrift store near San Diego for over two years I started noticing bugs or bug-like things and symptons similar to yours. My doctor was stumped as well, treating me repeatedly with external lotions and oral perscriptions for parasites. My family thought I was crazy telling me I was seeing things or what I was seeing was just fluff or fuzz and certainly wasnt alive. After listening to my symptons, a good friend and neighbor told me she had seen a segment on a local news channel about a woman in southern California who described the same thing and got no help or answers from several physicians. The segment was titled “Disease or Delusion?” on channel 8 here in San Diego. At the end of the segment there is a quick blurb about a study being conducted by the Centers for Disease Control. I quickly registered for information about the study and in January of this year 2010 the CDC released and sent a letter to the AMA and liscensed dermatologists across the United States and officially classified this as “UNEXPLAINED DERMOPATHY”. If you go to the CDC website and read the letter you might find some comfort in knowing you are not alone. In fact. the study that the CDC has funded is being done in northern California. I hope you find this information to be helpful. Take Care

    Reply
  2. P.S – The CDC has acknowledged a large and increasing number of these cases in the lower areas of California, Arizona and Texas so I wont be surprised if WTB gets more than a few inquiries. Thanks again. Love this site!

    Reply
  3. Head lice are not known to spread disease. Head lice can be an annoyance because their presence may cause itching and loss of sleep. Sometimes the itching can lead to excessive scratching that can sometimes increase the chance of a secondary skin infection.

    Reply
  4. There are non-toxic ways to deal with lice that also may be more effective as lice are growing more and more resistant to the pesticides in the commercial treatments.

    http://blog.oregonlive.com/pdxgreen/2010/06/treating_lice_doesnt_have_to_b.html

    Perhaps the most effective measure is to comb through the hair (and scalp) repeatedly with the nit comb while bent over the bathtub to see what comes out (hopefully nothing).

    Sadly, the first time someone finds a lice they have often been there for about a month because it takes that long for the body to develop an immune response of itching to them. But then… it’s very itchy I’m told.

    And it has nothing to do with hygiene as lice actually prefer clean hair and skin.

    If you take the vaseline method, which I do not recommend as it’s a petroleum product with its own toxic effects, then you will need mineral oil to work out the vaseline as it does not just shampoo out. Better to just go with the mineral oil to start. But best might be coconut oil as it also feeds the skin which mineral oil does not (despite the name).

    Reply
  5. There are non-toxic ways to deal with lice that also may be more effective as lice are growing more and more resistant to the pesticides in the commercial treatments.

    http://blog.oregonlive.com/pdxgreen/2010/06/treating_lice_doesnt_have_to_b.html

    Perhaps the most effective measure is to comb through the hair (and scalp) repeatedly with the nit comb while bent over the bathtub to see what comes out (hopefully nothing).

    Sadly, the first time someone finds a lice they have often been there for about a month because it takes that long for the body to develop an immune response of itching to them. But then… it’s very itchy I’m told.

    And it has nothing to do with hygiene as lice actually prefer clean hair and skin.

    If you take the vaseline method, which I do not recommend as it’s a petroleum product with its own toxic effects, then you will need mineral oil to work out the vaseline as it does not just shampoo out. Better to just go with the mineral oil to start. But best might be coconut oil as it also feeds the skin which mineral oil does not (despite the name).

    Reply
  6. When my kids were little, we fought head lice for 2 yrs. We’d use pesticide shampoo, scrape their hair with nit combs, send them back to school, only to be re-infested.

    Once, I had to excuse our family from an event because we were dealing with them AGAIN. My Mexican sister-in-law wouldn’t take no for an answer. She came over to help. She looked at their scalps and said, Ha! You call those head lice? They’re nothing!

    Her solution is so effective and so affordable!
    Smear lard or shortening on your head, work it all in. Put on a plastic shower cap. Go to bed for a good night’s sleep .

    In the morning, wash out the oil. All the bugs are dead, adults and nits alike. The nits slip easily off the hair.

    Reply
  7. When my kids were little, we fought head lice for 2 yrs. We’d use pesticide shampoo, scrape their hair with nit combs, send them back to school, only to be re-infested.

    Once, I had to excuse our family from an event because we were dealing with them AGAIN. My Mexican sister-in-law wouldn’t take no for an answer. She came over to help. She looked at their scalps and said, Ha! You call those head lice? They’re nothing!

    Her solution is so effective and so affordable!
    Smear lard or shortening on your head, work it all in. Put on a plastic shower cap. Go to bed for a good night’s sleep .

    In the morning, wash out the oil. All the bugs are dead, adults and nits alike. The nits slip easily off the hair.

    Reply

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