Lice vs. dandruff: Differences, pictures, and symptoms

Lice are easy to confuse with dandruff, which is a very common problem. While lice are a temporary infestation, dandruff is a chronic skin condition.

Every year, 6 to 12 million people in the United States get head lice. Most are children ages 3 to 12 years old.

Both lice and dandruff are usually treatable at home. Distinguishing one from the other can help a person choose the right treatment.

Lice vs. dandruff

Doctor inspecting a girls scalp to determine if it's lice or dandruff
Dandruff flakes from the scalp, but nits stick to the hair.

Dandruff, also known as seborrheic dermatitis, is a skin condition that causes the top layer of skin to shed too quickly. This shedding produces a dry, flaky, itchy scalp. People with dandruff may also notice flakes of skin on their clothes.

Yeast causes some types of dandruff that tend to be particularly itchy.

Lice are parasites that live on the scalp and eat human blood. Lice can cause intense itching.

Head lice do not spread diseases, but they are highly contagious. Close contact with the head or hair of a person with lice — such as from sharing hairbrushes or giving hugs — can spread the infestation.

Young children often hug or touch each other, and so head lice are more common in kids than adults and families with kids.

Some important differences between lice and dandruff include:

Location: Lice lay eggs called nits while dandruff causes flaky skin. The two look similar, but close inspection reveals key differences. Nits stick to the hair while dandruff flakes, easily falling off of hair. While dandruff is visible on the scalp, lice lay eggs on hair, not the scalp.

Contagion: Dandruff is not contagious, but lice spread easily from person to person. If a classmate, friend, or family member has recently had lice, lice could be the reason why a person develops an itchy scalp.

Itching: Dandruff and lice both itch. Dandruff tends to itch more when the scalp is dry. People with lice may feel a crawling sensation on their scalp.

Lymph nodes: Lice can cause bacterial infections, especially when a person scratches their scalp too hard and causes bleeding. Some people with lice notice that the lymph nodes on their neck or behind their ears feel swollen

Color: Lice are tiny, and people may need a magnifying glass to see them. If a person notices bugs or black or brown spots on the scalp or in the hair, this usually means they have lice, not dandruff.

Dandruff on the hair


Close up of head lice


Dandruff on a womans hair


Macro of a head lice


Dandruff close up on a mans head


close up of head lice on a comb

Symptoms of dandruff

Some people with dandruff develop seborrheic dermatitis on other areas of their body. When this happens, a person might notice flaking or scaly skin on the face, chest, neck, or ears. These areas may be dry, red, and painful or itchy.

Most people, however, experience a mild form of dandruff only on the scalp. Symptoms of dandruff include:

flaky skin that is either very oily or very dry

white or yellowish flakes on clothes

an itchy scalp

red patches on the scalp

symptoms that worsen in the winter or dry weather

Some people with dandruff notice temporary hair loss, but hair loss is more typical of other conditions.

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