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Transmission of Head Lice

Head lice is most often transmitted through direct (head-to-head) contact with an infested person. It has nothing to do with cleanliness or personal hygiene. Infestations are more common in children, because they often share things like clothing, brushes, and stuffed animals, on which the lice can be spread. Transmission does not occur from animals to humans.

How Does Transmission of Head Lice Occur?

Head lice are tiny, wingless, parasitic insects. They live for about a month and require blood in order to survive. Without blood meals, they die within a few days. Head lice are quite active and can travel quickly, which explains why they are transmitted so easily.
However, head lice are not long-distance travelers, and they do not do well away from the host. Although adept at moving from hair to hair, they cannot jump or crawl very far (from the floor to someone's head, for example).
Contact with an already infested person is the most common way that transmission of head lice occurs. Head-to-head contact is common during play at school and at home (sports activities, on a playground, slumber parties, at camp, etc.).
Head lice are also commonly spread by:
  • Lying on a bed, couch, pillow, carpet, or stuffed animal that has recently been in contact with an infested person
  • Using infested combs, brushes, or towels
  • Wearing clothing such as hats, scarves, coats, sports uniforms, or hair ribbons recently worn by an infested person.
Transmission of head lice does not occur because someone is dirty. In addition, head lice cannot be transmitted from any animals.

Who Gets Head Lice?

Anyone can get head lice. However, preschool and elementary-age children (ages 3-11) and their families are infested most often. This is because children and teens are more likely to transmit lice because they have close contact with each other and often share things.
Girls get head lice more often than boys, and women more often than men. In the United States, African Americans rarely get head lice.
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