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How Can I Tell the Difference between Lice and Dandruff?

By Natalie M. Smith
Updated May 21, 2024
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You can tell the difference between head lice and dandruff based on the symptoms they present. Namely, lice can cause red bumps on the head and neck area, and lice eggs cling steadfastly to your hair. Dandruff might cause a scaly or irritated scalp, but not bumps, and dandruff flakes can be easily removed. As for the signs that both conditions share, such as itching, lice symptoms generally are more severe.

Lice parasites, just like dandruff flakes, often appear as small white bits in your hair. Unlike dandruff, lice can also be brown or gray and accompanied by small, red bumps on the scalp, nape of the neck, shoulders and behind your ears. Dandruff flakes typically are white and oily, and the scalp might be scaly in appearance. Yellow flakes can also occur but usually are related to another skin condition called seborrheic dermatitis, also known as cradle cap when it affects infants.

The methods of prevention and treatment also distinguish between lice and dandruff. Head lice are difficult to prevent, especially in children, but not sharing hats, headgear and other personal belongings helps. Treatment requires special over-the-counter or prescription medicines to kill the eggs, or nits, as well as the adult lice. You can also purchase special combs to help you remove nits.

Dandruff flakes are dead skin cells, and some people simply shed more than others. Unlike lice, therefore, dandruff is neither harmful nor contagious. Flakes also can be easily be removed with any hair implement. Dandruff remedies include frequent cleansing with mild shampoos or, for more severe cases, using medicinal shampoos. This also distinguishes the two conditions, because regular or dandruff shampoos can neither control nor kill lice and nits.

An itchy scalp is a symptom that can be caused by both problems. When a louse bites your scalp, its saliva typically causes you to have an allergic reaction, which results in intense itching. Lice can also cause your scalp to tingle. Dandruff produces milder symptoms and does not cause tingling.

Another clue that can help you tell the difference between lice and dandruff is if and when symptoms increase. Dandruff tends to worsen during cold, dry winters. Lice infestations are not related to any particular weather conditions or seasons.

Even after learning the characteristics of both, recognizing lice or dandruff might still be difficult, especially if your symptoms are few or mild. Although both typically can be cured or managed with at-home treatment, consider seeking medical attention if your condition does not heal, if it gets worse or if you cannot determine which condition you have. You might need prescription medication or might be suffering from a different condition altogether.

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Discussion Comments

By stoneMason — On Mar 01, 2013

@donasmrs-- Yes, you can. I don't see how anyone can confuse lice with dandruff because those things move! They do come off when hair is combed and you can see them move on the comb.

Nits are harder to notice and they can be confused with dandruff. Nits are more sticky and don't come off when combed.

There is also a slightly gross way to tell them apart. If you squeeze nits between your nails, they snap and make a noise. That never happens with dandruff.

By candyquilt — On Feb 28, 2013

I've had dandruff for years. My scalp is oily and itchy in general. Lately though, I feel more irritation with my scalp and last night, I noticed some red spots above my ear. But I don't see red spots anywhere else so I'm wondering if I developed some acne there. That has happened before.

I need a better way to figure out if I have dandruff or lice. Is there some sort of test I can do?

Is there a home remedy for lice I can try at home to see if my scalp feels better afterward?

By donasmrs — On Feb 27, 2013

Can I tell apart lice and dandruff by brushing my hair? I know dandruff comes off when I use a fine-toothed comb. Is it the same with nits and lice?

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