Dr. Greene’s Answer:
Adult lice are six-legged, wingless insects 2-4 mm long. They have translucent grayish-white bodies, and look a bit like a grain of rice with six legs. Their heads have two tiny eyes (too small to be seen without magnification) and two small antennae (usually visible).
Six pairs of hooks surround the mouth parts, by which they attach themselves to the skin of the scalp for feeding. The mouth contains two retractable, needle-like tubes that pierce the scalp. Salivary juices are injected into the scalp to prevent blood from clotting, and then the lice feed happily, sucking blood through these same tubes. Their translucent bodies turn reddish brown when engorged with blood. Lice completely depend on the blood extracted from humans for existence, and thus will starve to death after 55 hours without blood.
Lice eggs are called nits. These white, translucent, pinpoint-sized eggs are laid near the base of hair shafts, and move outward as the hair grows (nits found near the tips of long hairs suggest a longstanding infestation). Nits are glued tightly to the side of the hair shafts, and cannot be moved along the shafts or knocked off with fingers. The eggs hatch between ten to fourteen days after they are laid (AAP Red Book 2006). The empty eggs remain attached to the hair shaft. The newborn larvae must feed on human blood within 24 hours, or they will starve to death. The larvae become sexually mature adult lice within about one week. Adult head lice can survive up to two days away from the scalp, which is how they are transmitted by things like combs, brushes, and hats.
Last reviewed: February 06, 2008