Body lice are small, oblong insects that feed on human blood. Symptoms of body lice bites include itchy and irritated skin and small, discolored bites. You can treat and prevent body lice infestations by bathing daily and washing your clothing and bedding at least once a week. Medications can help get rid of severe body lice infestations.
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:
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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:
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:
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.
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:
More severe symptoms may include:
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.
Yes, body lice can spread diseases. Body lice can transmit diseases like:
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.
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.
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:
Your healthcare provider should discuss how to use these treatments and any possible side effects.
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:
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.
Studies show that vinegar doesn’t kill lice. Healthcare providers don’t recommend vinegar.
You can prevent body lice infestations by bathing and washing your clothing, bedding and other personal items at least once a week.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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