Body Lice

Overview

What are body lice?

There are three types of lice that affect humans: body lice, head lice and pubic lice (crabs). Body lice are small, flat insects. They’re parasites, which means they live around your body and feed on your blood. They have a long abdomen, six legs, strong claws on the bottoms of their legs that allow them to hold onto a host (you), and sharp mouthparts that can pierce your skin to feed on your blood. They can’t fly or jump, so they travel by crawling.

There are three stages of body lice:

  • Nit: Nits are oval-shaped, yellow-white lice eggs. They’re very small, and you may not see them on your skin. You’re most likely to find nits in the seams of your clothing. Nits hatch within one to two weeks.
  • Nymph: A nymph is an adolescent louse (singular form of lice) that hatches from a nit. Nymphs are smaller than adult lice but will mature into adults after feeding on blood for nine to 12 days.
  • Adult: An adult louse looks yellow-gray or brown-red. They’re about the size of a sesame seed (3 millimeters). Female lice are typically bigger than male lice, and they can lay over 300 nits during their lifespan. Body lice only live for about 20 days. If an adult louse can’t feed on blood, it’ll die within one to two days.

Unlike head lice and public lice, body lice don’t live on your body. They live and reproduce in your clothing.

Who do body lice affect?

Anyone can have body lice. Body lice affect people of all ages and races around the world.

Body lice occur most often among people living in crowded conditions without regular access to clean clothes, bedding (bedsheets, pillowcases, blankets and so on) and personal hygiene products. This may include:

  • People without housing.
  • Refugees.
  • Victims of natural disasters.
  • Victims of war.

How do body lice affect my body?

Body lice infestations (pediculosis) usually cause itchy skin and a skin rash at the site of louse bites. Some people don’t have any symptoms at all. Most people recover from body lice infestations without using medication.

Body lice typically affect the areas of your body where the seams of your clothing touch your skin, including your:

  • Waist.
  • Groin.
  • Armpits.
  • Shoulders.
  • Neck.

Symptoms and Causes

What causes body lice infestations?

Body lice spread by direct, person-to-person contact. You can also get body lice by sharing clothing, bedding, towels or other linens with someone who has body lice.

What are the symptoms of body lice bites?

The symptoms of body lice bites vary. If the body lice carry disease or an allergic reaction occurs, your symptoms may be more severe.

Common symptoms include:

  • A tickling feeling on your skin.
  • Itchy and irritated skin.
  • Groups of small, discolored (red, purple, brown) dots or bites. They may grow bigger and develop a lighter discolored ring around the outside.

More severe symptoms may include:

  • Sores.
  • Infections.

If you have a long-term body lice infestation, or if lice heavily bite certain areas of your skin, your skin may thicken and get darker.

Do body lice spread diseases?

Yes, body lice can spread diseases. Body lice can transmit diseases like:

  • Typhus: A bacterial infection that causes a skin rash, fever and headaches.
  • Trench fever: A bacterial infection that causes fever, weakness, dizziness, headaches and pain in your legs and back.
  • Louse-borne relapsing fever: A bacterial infection that causes recurring fever, nausea and vomiting and muscle pains (myalgia).

Diagnosis and Tests

How are body lice infestations diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider can diagnose body lice by examining your body. They’ll note any severe itching or rashes and may be able to see lice feeding on your skin.

Your healthcare provider may also examine your clothing. They may use a magnifying glass to look in the seams of your clothing for body lice or nits.

Management and Treatment

How are body lice treated?

Most people successfully get rid of body lice infestations by regularly bathing with soap and warm water and washing their clothes. Try to bathe daily until you no longer see body lice or nits on your body, clothes, bedding or other fabric items, like towels.

To prevent body lice from coming back, try to bathe and wash your clothing, bedding and other fabric items at least once a week.

Wash your clothing, bedding and any other fabrics that have been in contact with the body lice in hot water (at least 129 degrees Fahrenheit or 54 degrees Celsius). You may need to adjust your water heater to get the right temperature. After you’ve washed your clothes, put them in a clothes dryer set to the hottest setting for at least 30 minutes.

You can also help kill nits and body lice by ironing your clothing. Turn your clothing and bedding inside out and carefully iron the seams.

If you can’t wash certain items or don’t have access to a washer and dryer, putting the items in a plastic bag and sealing the bag tightly for at least two weeks can also be effective. If possible, store them in a warm place.

Regularly vacuum your carpets, mattresses and furniture. Immediately empty your vacuum into a trashcan outside after you’ve finished.

What treatments are used to treat body lice?

Many people recover without medication, focusing on keeping their bodies, clothing and bedding clean and free of lice. But if you can’t regularly bathe or wash your clothes, your healthcare provider may suggest medications, including:

  • Oral antiparasite medication, like ivermectin tablets.
  • Topical antiparasite powder, lotion, cream or shampoo, like permethrin.

Your healthcare provider should discuss how to use these treatments and any possible side effects.

How do I manage body lice bite symptoms?

Try not to scratch your body lice bites. You risk breaking your skin and exposing yourself to infection. If you accidentally break your skin, keep the area clean by washing it with soap and water and covering your lice bites with a bandage. Talk to your healthcare provider if you have infected body lice bites.

There are many over-the-counter (OTC) products that can help stop body lice bites from itching or causing pain, including:

  • Antihistamines: Histamine is a chemical created by your immune system. Your body releases histamine after it encounters an allergen. Histamine is what makes body lice bites itch. You can take an antihistamine as a pill, or you can apply it directly to your rash or body lice bites as a cream or ointment.
  • Hydrocortisone: Hydrocortisone is a corticosteroid. It relieves itching and swelling. You can apply it directly to your rash or body lice bites as a cream or ointment.

Are there any home remedies for body lice bite symptoms?

There are many home remedies for body lice bite symptoms.

Though home remedies are safe for most people, it’s a good idea to check with your healthcare provider before trying some of the following options. You may be at risk of developing an allergic reaction.

  • Aloe vera gel: Aloe vera is a succulent plant. The gel in its leaves contains salicylic acid, which relieves itching and pain. Apply aloe vera gel to your rash and body lice bites.
  • Ice: Ice can slow down the amount of blood that flows to an area. It reduces inflammation, pain, swelling and itchiness. Apply an ice pack covered in a light towel over the area for at least 10 minutes three to four times a day for relief.
  • Oatmeal: Oatmeal contains gluten, which can soothe body lice bites. Colloidal oatmeal is available OTC, or you can make your own by putting oatmeal in a food processor. Mix the oatmeal powder with warm water until it becomes a thick, sticky paste. Apply enough of the oatmeal paste to cover your body lice bites completely. After at least 10 minutes, wipe off the paste with a clean towel.

Can vinegar get rid of body lice?

Studies show that vinegar doesn’t kill lice. Healthcare providers don’t recommend vinegar.

Prevention

How can I reduce my risk of getting body lice?

You can prevent body lice infestations by bathing and washing your clothing, bedding and other personal items at least once a week.

Outlook / Prognosis

What can I expect if I have body lice?

Most people with body lice recover without medication.

It may take up to two weeks for your body lice infestation to go away. Nits hatch in one to two weeks and can be killed through proper washing of clothing or bedding in hot water. Adult lice and nymphs will die in one to two days if they can’t feed on your blood.

Living With

When should I see my healthcare provider?

See your healthcare provider if you see adult body lice or nits on your skin, clothing or bedding. It’s also a good idea to see your healthcare provider if you develop an itchy rash on your skin, particularly near clothing seams. They can help determine whether you have body lice.

Also see your healthcare provider if you experience an allergic reaction to body lice medications or develop symptoms of a disease carried by body lice.

What questions should I ask my healthcare provider?

  • How can you tell that I have body lice?
  • How did I get body lice?
  • What over-the-counter medications do you recommend?
  • Do I have symptoms of a disease carried by body lice?

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between body lice and head lice?

Body lice and head lice look similar because they’re both from the same species, with only slight physical differences.

Body lice don’t affect your head, and head lice don’t affect your body. Body lice live and lay their nits in the seams of your clothing, bedding and other fabric items that are in frequent contact with your body. Head lice live and lay their nits in your hair.

Head lice are more common than body lice. Head lice spread by direct head-to-head contact and sharing items — including combs, brushes, scarves and hats — with an infected person.

What is the difference between body lice and scabies?

Scabies is a skin condition caused by tiny arachnids (bugs with bodies that have two segments and eight legs) called mites. Scabies symptoms look similar to body lice symptoms, including itching and a discolored skin rash.

Mites are smaller than body lice, and they live in the folds and narrow cracks of your skin. These areas may include:

  • Folds in between your fingers and toes.
  • Waist.
  • Under your fingernails.
  • Folds in your genitals.
  • Folds in your thighs.

Mites burrow into the upper levels of your skin to lay their eggs. Body lice don’t burrow into your skin. They only bite your skin to feed on your blood, and they lay their nits in the seams of your clothes.

What is the difference between body lice bites and bed bug bites?

Body lice bites and bed bug bites look similar — slightly swollen and discolored marks that itch.

Bed bug bites typically appear on any exposed parts of your skin while you’re sleeping. These areas may include your:

  • Arms.
  • Hands.
  • Back.
  • Face.
  • Neck.

The easiest way to tell whether your bites are from body lice or bed bugs is to identify the bugs physically.

Bed bugs are usually bigger than body lice — about the size of an apple seed. They have flat, round bodies, and they’re brown or reddish-brown.

Body lice have an oblong shape. They’re yellow-gray but may look brownish-red after they have fed.

You can also tell the difference between body lice and bed bugs by exploring your clothing and bedding. Body lice live and lay nits in the seams of your clothing. Bed bugs hide in the areas in and around your bed — along the seams of your mattress, in your box spring, bed frame and headboard — and between and along the seams of cushions of bedroom chairs or couches.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Body lice are itchy and annoying insects. In most cases, body lice are fairly harmless and don’t require medicines for treatment. Bathing and properly washing your clothing and bedding in hot water should kill body lice and their nits. You shouldn’t scratch your body lice bites. You can relieve body lice bite symptoms with many over-the-counter or home remedies. Contact your healthcare provider if you have a severe body lice infestation that doesn’t go away after bathing and washing your clothes.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/04/2022.

References

  • American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. Body Lice. (https://www.aocd.org/page/BodyLice) Accessed 3/4/2022.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Parasites - Lice. (https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/lice/index.html) Accessed 3/4/2022.
  • DermNet NZ. Body Lice. (https://dermnetnz.org/topics/body-lice) Accessed 3/4/2022.
  • Mayeaux, Jr. EJ, Usatine RP, Banta JC. Lice. In: Usatine RP, Smith MA, Mayeaux, Jr. EJ, et al., eds. The Color Atlas and Synopsis of Family Medicine, 3rd Ed. McGraw Hill; 2019. Accessed 3/4/2022.
  • Smith C. Infestations and Bites. In: Soutor C, Hordinsky MK. eds. Clinical Dermatology. McGraw Hill; 2017. Accessed 3/4/2022.
  • Wheat CM, Burkhart CN, Burkhart CG, et al. Scabies, Other Mites, and Pediculosis. In: Kang S, Amagai M, Bruckner AL, et al., eds. Fitzpatrick's Dermatology, 9th Edition. McGraw Hill; 2019. Accessed 3/4/2022.
  • World Health Organization. Vector-borne diseases. (https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/vector-borne-diseases) Accessed 3/4/2022.

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