Lice Vs Dandruff

An itchy scalp or the presence of white particles in your hair could mean that you have either lice or dandruff. To administer the right treatment, it is important that you start off with the correct diagnosis. While both lice and dandruff share certain similarities, with an itchy scalp being the most obvious, there are key differences between head lice and dandruff.

Understanding the difference between head lice and dandruff

Head lice and dandruff have a lot in common: irritation on the scalp, itchy head and white substances in the hair. However, the truth is there is no link between head lice and dandruff. And neither is caused by the other or influenced by the other.

Dandruff and its causes

Dandruff is caused by a yeast-like fungus known as Malassezia. While everybody has this fungus on the head, it only causes problems to some people. The reason for this boils down to the way the fungus survives. It feeds on the natural oils secreted by the scalp. Malassezia breaks down the oil to leave oleic acid behind. This is what causes dandruff. Those who suffer from dandruff are sensitive to oleic acid. Dandruff is associated with excessively oily or dry skin, yeast infection and certain genetic factors.

Signs of dandruff

  • A slightly itchy scalp that irritates from time to time
  • Visibly rough-looking flakes that are thick and flaky in texture
  • The flakes tend to fall off as you brush or comb your hair through
  • The scalp may feel scaly and have white or yellow patches of dryness
  • Red or irritated scalp
  • Dandruff is non-contagious and cannot spread from person to person
  • A severe case of dandruff can spread from the scalp to other parts of the body like groin, eyebrows, armpits, and sides of the nose.

Lice causes

Lice, Pediculus humanus capitis, are small, wingless parasites that feed on blood. They infest the head and feed off the blood on the scalp. A mature louse is about the size of a sesame seed, while a nit (louse egg) is about the size of a flake of dandruff.

Left untreated, lice infestation can grow to cause severe itching and scalp aggravation. This explains why lice infestation is predominant in preschool and elementary school children.

Lice infestation is not an indicator of poor hygiene or a bad lifestyle. It simply means that you got into contact or shared personal effects like clothing, towels, beddings, combs, hair accessories and hats with an infected person.

Three types of lice

There are three main types of lice.

1. Head lice

These lice infest humans only. They can affect anywhere on the scalp, particularly on the nap of the neck. They feed on human lice.

2. Body lice

Different from head lice, these types of lice stay on the clothing and lay eggs on them. Like head lice, body lice like to feed on human blood. They crawl and get onto the body to suck blood.

3. Crab lice/ pubic lice

The smallest of the three, pubic lice have different looks. When observed under a microscope, they have large front legs and a crab-like body. They breed in the hair in the genital area. They can be easily transferred during sexual contact.

Signs of head lice

  • Severe and unending itching caused by lice saliva while sucking
  • A moving sensation caused by lice’s movement on the scalp
  • Sleeplessness due to a ticklish effect on the head
  • Areas around the ears and above the neck may be infested
  • Excessive scratching may cause red sores on the scalp
  • Lice are contagious, meaning that they can spread from person to person
  • On examining the hair, you may notice tiny, white oval-shaped specs that are glued to the hair shaft.
  • Empty nit cases may be visible on the scalp
  • Affects people of all ages

Health effects of lice infestation

As already mentioned, lice feed off human blood. They bite into the scalp to suck blood. These bites can be quite irritating, causing the host to scratch. Excessive scratching can result in breaking of the skin and this can ultimately result in open wounds and bleeding.

Long-term infestation can be dangerous since these parasites extract blood from the host. Remember, lice reproduce quickly and can multiply at an alarming rate. Severe lice infestation can cause anemia, loss of energy and sleep deprivation.

Common Lice vs. Dandruff FAQs

What are the causes and risk factors of lice and dandruff infestation?

Lice infestation occurs as a result of person-to-person transmission of the parasites through contaminated agents like clothing, beddings and other personal effects. It is highly contagious and very common in pre-schoolers and small children.

Dandruff, on the other hand, is caused by a fungi known as Malassezia. It is extremely common, especially in teens and adults. Some people may experience repeated outbreaks of the condition and can at times be linked to genetic factors.

What are the tell-tale signs of lice and dandruff infestation?

Both head lice and dandruff can cause noticeable symptoms in some people. Both conditions are associated with itching. Lice feed on the blood and stay close to the scalp. During the bite, the insects’ saliva irritates the scalp to cause itching. Dandruff, on the other hand, tends to itch when the scalp is very dry.

How do you treat lice?

Check all members of your household for lice infestation, especially if they are sharing personal effects like beddings, clothing and combs. Here are some of the lice treatment options:

Prescription shampoo

Head lice can be treated using medicated shampoos. These shampoos contain permethrin and pyrethrin that kill lice and nits and are recommended for people of all ages. Wash your hair with medical shampoo for seven to 10 days to ensure that all lice are dead.


You may use over-the-counter or prescription medication to treat lice infestation. Here are some of these medications:

  • Pyrethrins
  • 1% permethrin lotion
  • 5% benzyl alcohol lotion
  • 0.5% melathion lotion
  • 0.5% ivermectin lotion
  • 0.9% spinosad topical suspension

Home remedies for lice

Medicated shampoos can be combined with non-medical remedies to treat lice infestation and prevent spreading. These include washing beddings and all clothing in very hot water before drying them on a high heat setting. Additionally, be sure to vacuum upholstered furniture and carpeting and bag up infested pets and other toys for at least two weeks to starve lice.

How do you treat dandruff?

Dandruff too can be managed using medicated shampoos that slow down the skin-shredding process or treat the fungi that may cause skin flaking. Buy shampoos with salicylic acid, coal tar, selenium sulfide and ketoconazole. Apply the shampoo every day to manage flaking.

Home remedies for dandruff

Tea tree oil is one of the most effective home remedies for dandruff. Other home remedies include:

  • Coconut oil and lemon massage
  • Fenugreek pack
  • Curd
  • Baking soda
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Henna or mehndi
  • Neem juice
  • Multani mitti hair pack

How can I prevent lice?

Lice can affect anyone. And it is not a sign of bad hygiene or dirtiness. The length of your hair does not affect your risk factor of getting lice. That said, lice can be prevented by avoiding sharing personal items like combs and hair ties. Also, advise children to avoid head-to-head contact with people who have lice. Finally, regularly examine your children’s hair for lice or nits.

How do I prevent dandruff?

Preventing dandruff can be a challenge if you are genetically predisposed to the condition. That said, here are a few options you can consider to reduce or prevent episodes of flaky skin:

  • Use of antifungal or anti-dandruff shampoos
  • Using shampoos with tea tree oils
  • Massage your scalp instead of scratching while in the shower
  • Manage your stress levels
  • Avoid chemicals like sprays or dyes in the hair
  • Brush your hair daily

Lice vs. dandruff: Final word

Lice and dandruff are two of the most common hair and scalp conditions. Some people confuse the two thanks to a similarity in color and size and the itching effect. Head lice are tiny, brown parasitic insects. These tear-shaped parasites stick close to the scalp and feed on human blood. Dandruff, Seborrheic dermatitis, is a different scalp condition. Proper prevention and treatment of lice and dandruff require a proper diagnosis of the infection.