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How to Spot the Difference Between Lice/Nits and Dandruff

how to tell difference between lice and dandruff

Can dandruff be mistaken for lice?

Lice and nits are very commonly confused with dandruff. Meanwhile, there is a very big difference. Lice is a short-term infestation while dandruff is a skin condition. Dandruff is a skin condition that makes skin shed to quickly. This causes those with dandruff to have a dry and itchy scalp. When you have dandruff, white flakes come off of the head when scratched. Lice, on the other hand, are little insects that crawl on to your hair. They get transferred from head to head. Lice feed on human blood and can also cause itchiness. Below are five ways that you could spot the difference between lice/nits and dandruff. Lice eggs are clearly attached to one side of the hair shaft. DEC plugs and hair casts surround the hair shaft.

How to tell the difference between lice and dandruff

  1. Location
    Lice lay eggs called nits. Nits stick to the hair while dandruff is flaky. If you scratch your hair, dandruff will come flying out while nits will stay in their place. Also, dandruff is visible on the scalp while nits are on the hair.
  2. Color
    Nits can vary in color from yellow to beige and even to dark brown. A good way to confirm a nit is to pull it out of the hair and place against a white piece of paper.
  3. Feeling
    Dandruff and lice both cause intense itching. But there are still several differences. Dandruff itches more when the scalp is dry. Those with lice may feel a crawling sensation on their heads.
  4. Contagion
    Dandruff is not in any way contagious. But, lice can be easily spread from head to head.

Comparing Lice and Dandruff Symptoms

Comparing the symptoms of lice and dandruff can be useful in case you ever suspect that you have lice.

Dandruff Symptoms
Most with dandruff only experience flaking and itching from the scalp. Symptoms of dandruff may include:

  • Flaky skin
  • White or yellow flakes on clothes
  • Itchy scalp
  • Worsening symptoms during colder months

Lice Symptoms
Head lice is most common amongst children and those who work with children. Symptoms of lice may include:

  • Itchy scalp
  • Bloody spots on the head (from itching)
  • Nits (eggs)


According to CDC General Guidelines for Treatment

Treatment for head lice is recommended for persons diagnosed with an active infestation. All household members and other close contacts should be checked; those persons with evidence of an active infestation should be treated. (Source: CDC)

To a novice eye, one can easily confuse lice nits (eggs) with dandruff, sebum secretions and hair casts. A good way to differentiate between an nit and normal hair findings is to see whether the particle glides or moves around easily. If the answer is yes, it is certainly not lice related. Over-the-counter (OTC) lice remedies no longer work well, because lice are resistant to these medicines. Hiring a professional lice service is not as expensive as one would think considering all.

Dandruff on the other hand often responds well to OTC anti-dandruff shampoos. People can purchase these shampoos in drugstores or online.

Neither having lice or dandruff is dangerous. Constant scratching can injure the scalp, however, and may lead to a scalp infection.

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