Nits Vs Dandruff – How to Tell the Difference

head-liceNits are easy to recognize because they are tiny, sticky, and do not look like flakes. People often mistake dry scalp and dandruff for nits. If you have never identified nits before, it can be difficult to decide whether a white spot is a nit or not. Nits look like tiny little white sand and can often be mistaken for dandruff. Nits are lice eggs stuck to the hair shaft, and white, flaky dandruff is mostly on the scalp.

Yellow, oily flakes can also occur, but are usually related to another skin condition called seborrheic dermatitis, also known as cradle cap when it affects babies.

As dandruff and nits different?

Knowing the difference between lice and dandruff can help heal your scalp condition properly. Lice are infectious parasites and dandruff is a self-contained scalp condition. Dandruff comes from the head, and flakes off. Dandruff is due to the excessive shedding of dead skin cells from the scalp, and lice are wingless insects (small bugs) that infest the hair and scalp.

The methods of prevention and treatment also vary between lice and dandruff. Although both can usually be cured or controlled with at-home treatment, consider seeking medical attention if your condition remains untreated, if it gets worse, or if you can not determine which condition you have.

A few ways to tell the difference between nits and dandruff flakes: 

1.) Dandruff flakes appear throughout the  hair, while most louse eggs appear close to the scalp. Most of the time eggs will not be directly on the scalp, but on strands of hair about 1/2 inch down from the scalp.

The louse will lay her egg on the hair shaft close to the scalp, to ensure the egg will get the proper amount of heat from the head. Nits move farther away from the scalp as the hair grows. While it is common for eggs to be laid down 1/4 to 1/2 inch from the head, in the warmer weather eggs are often laid anywhere on the hair shaft. Head lice infestations, however, are not associated with specific weather conditions or seasons.

2.) Another key difference is the dandruff flakes off, and nits stick to the hair and it will not move if you blow on them. Nits normally stick to your hair. The eggs will be white and very hard to get out of hair, almost like it was glued on. The eggs are tiny tiny and white and round and are very attached to your hair, almost “cemented” onto the hair. Louse eggs are literally glued to the hair by the female louse. Things like hair products and foods can also stick to the hair shaft and do not move.

3.) Flakes can also be easily removed from the hair with any hair implement. So if the white stuff in your hair brushes off quickly, it’s probably dandruff. Nits tend to not come off as easy as dandruff does, and will not easily brush off the hair. With dandruff, this does not happen, and the white bits are just flakes as opposed to eggs. Lice are glued (for lack of better words) to hair, therefore, white and flaky is dandruff.

4.) Pluck out a few hairs from different parts of your scalp and examine them. If you see a little white or clear spot attached to the hair strand, it means you have nits (lice eggs). To distinguish them from dandruff or hair spray, pick up a strand of hair near the scalp and pull your fingernail over the area where the whitish substance appears. See if you can move the white spot on the hair with your thumb and forefinger.

If you can, then it’s “hair cast” and just a few of the normal cells in the scalp skin that got trapped in the hair as it grew from the scalp. If, however, you can not push the white spot off of the hair, then you might have nits (louse egg case) on the shaft.

5.) Nits are also much more symmetrical than dandruff flakes, which are usually asymmetrical. A nit is a truly oval object, with live lice in it (it will be brown) or hatched (it will be white, and have already popped its top off.) If there is a live louse in the nit, then it will be reddish in color and if it turns white, then it will be empty, and the young louse is “at large.” Empty egg cases (left after the baby louse has hatched) are shiny white and easier to spot. Upon hatching, the remaining shell looks white or clear.

6.) Itchy scalp is a symptom that can be caused by both problems. As for the symptoms that both conditions share, such as itching, lice symptoms are usually more severe. When a louse bites your skin, the saliva causes you have an allergic reaction, which results in intense itching. Lice can also cause your scalp to tingle. Dandruff produces mild symptoms and does not cause a tingling sensation.

How to check for nits and lice 

Lice make their home in human hair, feeding on blood from the head, holding the hair with hook-like claws found at the end of their six legs. Your best best is to have someone check your scalp for bugs. Let your friends or parents check your hair about 1/4 inch from the scalp in thin areas behind the ears and neck. You can also go to a dermatologist and have them look at your hair and scalp line.

Lice are visible and can be easily identified. With a magnifying glass will easily be able to see their legs and heads. Lice move fast, but are more easy to spot on light hair, like dishwater blonde hair, versus brunette, black, or brown hair.

Also, look for small, inflamed bites on the scalp, or skin rash on the back of the neck and behind the ears. Dandruff can cause irritation of the scalp, but no bumps, and flakes of dandruff can be easily removed. If symptoms such as itchy red bumps are present, you do have lice.

Finally look for dark spots on your pillow or collar. These black dots are louse feces.

Dandruff / Dry Scalp Treatment 

Dandruff is due to dry skin on the scalp, so use a shampoo and conditioner that have moisturizers in them. The best cure for dandruff is Nizoral. If you can not find nits, consider getting a shampoo for dry scalp, or a concentrated dandruff shampoo instead and make sure to rinse all the soap out of your hair completely.

Shampooing with regular dandruff shampoo also distinguishes the two conditions, as using dandruff shampoos can not control or kill the lice and nits.

Treating head lice and nits 

Treatment requires special over-the-counter or prescription medications to kill the eggs or nits and adult lice. It is better to treat lice right away, because lice can multiply easily making them harder to remove.

You can go to Walgreen, CVS, Navarro etc and buy a shampoo called Relieve or nixx – just follow the directions on the box. After shampooing to kill adult lice, wash your hair and scalp with vinegar, which weakens the glue that holds the nits to the hair shaft.

There are also sprays to spray furniture, seats and beds, to eliminate all lice.

Other reasons for itchy scalp besides nits, lice, or dandruff 

Itchy scalp can be a symptom of dry skin (like your hands during dry winter weather conditions.) Itchy scalp does not necessarily mean that you have parasites.

Residual shampoo, conditioner, and other hair products can irritate the scalp a lot, causing itching. Other conditions that can cause your scalp to itch and flake are cradle cap, dandruff, and eczema. Have your doctor check you out to make sure, because it might be something like scabies or bed bugs. If you have dry skin, and not really dandruff, itchy scalp would be  present as well.

Take a trip to the dermatologist to have things looked at, because there are many other things that can make your head itch besides dandruff and lice. You may need a prescription medication or perhaps suffer from different condition altogether.

Lice Lifecycle 

Louse eggs are brown when they are laid, but will have a whitish or translucent appearance when empty, so are easily spotted. After seven or eight days the baby louse hatches from an egg, leaving a shiny white empty eggshell (nit), which can be found anywhere along the strand of hair. An actual louse (lice) is very small. You can tell because the eggs hatch every 3 days, and your head will itch. Itching is caused by an allergy to the saliva of the louse, and it may be several weeks before itching occurs.

The lice themselves are not white, just like louse eggs (nits) are not always white, but will turn white after lice hatch. Nymphs are smaller and become adult lice about 7 days after hatching. Adult lice live for 30 days after finishing the nymph stage.

Different skin conditions require a different treatment. While they share some similarities, lice and dandruff are two different conditions that require different treatments. The right treatment can make a big difference to your head and hair health. Before seeking treatment, remember that the biggest difference between nits vs dandruff: A nit is a little bug glued to the hair, not white flakes. Dandruff will just blow away or simply move with your scalp hair, when you touch it or blow on it. If white spots are moving, you’ve got nits, vs dandruff or another scalp condition.