Head lice and dandruff are two common conditions that affect the scalp. When checking for head lice sometimes nits can be confused with flakes of dandruff because of their similar appearance. So, how do you tell the difference between nits and dandruff?
Nits is a term used to describe empty head lice eggshells.1 Head lice are parasitic insects that invade the hairs of the human head and feed on blood from the scalp. 1 Head lice and nits can affect anyone of any age but is more common in school aged children between 4 and 11 years old. 1 Dandruff is a common non-inflammatory skin condition which results excessive amounts of dry skin being shed from the scalp.2 Dandruff affects around 50% of the global population and tends to develop at puberty and becomes less common in people over 50.3 Small children can experience a flaky scalp but this likely to be a condition called seborrheic dermatitis, also known as ‘cradle cap’.
Itching is a characteristic symptom of both head lice and dandruff. However, there are other signs and symptoms of head lice that can help you differentiate nits versus dandruff.
Head lice symptoms include:
Dandruff symptoms include:
Although nits and dandruff are common conditions to affect the scalp, the causes of each condition are completely different, and neither are caused by a lack of personal hygiene.2
Nits are eggs laid by parasitic insects the spread from person to person through close contact.1There is also a small chance of catching head lice and nits from another infected persons clothing, bedding, hairbrushes, and other personal items.6
Unlike head lice and nits, dandruff is not contagious.5 We are still learning more about what causes dandruff despite it being a very common condition, but what we know so far is that dandruff can be caused by:
It is not easy to base the diagnosis of head lice or dandruff by the symptom of itchiness alone, as some people with these conditions do not experience itchiness and some do not have any symptoms at all. Without the itchy symptom these conditions can sometimes go undiagnosed.
The key method to diagnose head lice vs. dandruff is a scalp examination where a living, moving head louse is found. If a nit is found, this does not always mean there is an active infestation of head lice.7 This is why treatment is not recommended for head lice until a louse is found.
Sometimes dandruff flakes can be confused as nits, and vice versa. The way to tell the difference between nits and dandruff is that dandruff is much more easily removed from the hair, whereas nits are glued to the hair shaft. If you can remove the white speck easily then it is dry skin (dandruff), if not, it could be a nit.
The treatment for these two conditions is very different, hence it is important to correctly diagnose.
If you have found a living louse moving about your child’s head, then don't panic. There are simple steps you can follow if you find your child has head lice. You can also use the following treatments:
If there are no bugs crawling about your head but an excessive amount of dry skin on the scalp and your clothes, then the following treatments can be used to manage the presence of dandruff:
If you need help examining the scalp for head lice or dandruff, you could visit your local pharmacy for more advice.
There can be a stigma around having head lice or dandruff, yet neither of these conditions are dangerous. Although both these conditions can be perceived as a nuisance, there are over-the-counter treatments that can help you manage both.