Body lice are tiny insects (scientific name is Pediculus humanus corporis) that are spread through close contact with other people.
This is a magnified view of a body louse. Lice produce itching and a characteristic skin rash, which looks like a scrape. Lice may also carry organisms that cause relapsing fever, typhus, and trench fever. (Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
Two other types of lice are:
Body lice live in the seams and folds of clothing. They feed on human blood and lay their eggs and deposit waste matter on the skin and clothing.
Lice die within 3 days at room temperature if they fall off a person into most areas of the environment. However, they can live in the seams of clothing for up to 1 month.
You can get body lice if you come in direct contact with someone who has lice. You can also get lice from infected clothing, towels, or bedding.
Body lice are bigger than other types of lice.
You are more likely to get body lice if you do not bathe and wash your clothes often or live in close (overcrowded) conditions. Lice are unlikely to last if you:
- Bathe regularly
- Wash clothes and bedding at least once a week
Lice cause severe itching. The itching is a reaction to the saliva from the insect's bite. Itching is usually worse around the waist, under the arms, and in places where clothing is tighter and closer to the body (such as near bra straps).
You may have red bumps on your skin. The bumps may scab or become crusty after scratching.
Skin around the waist or groin may become thickened or change color if you have been infected with lice in that area for a long time.
Exams and Tests
Your health care provider will look at your skin and clothing for signs of lice.
- Full-grown lice are the size of a sesame seed, have 6 legs, and are tan to grayish-white.
- Nits are lice eggs. They will most often be seen in the clothing of someone with lice, usually around the waist and in the armpits.
You should also be checked for head and pubic lice if you have body lice.
To get rid of body lice, take the following important steps:
- Bathe regularly to get rid of lice and their eggs.
- Change your clothes often.
- Wash clothes and bedding in hot water (at least 130°F or 54°C) and machine dry using the hot cycle.
- Items that can't be washed, such as stuffed toys, mattresses, or furniture, can be thoroughly vacuumed to get rid of lice and eggs that have fallen off the body.
Your provider may prescribe a skin cream or a wash that contains permethrin, malathion, or benzyl alcohol. If your case is severe, the provider may prescribe medicine that you take by mouth.
Getting rid of lice in the home - Animation
Head lice can be a real problem. I heard a really creative tip for dealing with this I want to share with you. I'm Dr. Alan Greene. The tip came from Dr. Donnica Moore, a colleague of mine in Ob/Gyn. It turns out that head lice can only live for 55 hours without human blood. So one of the best ways to get rid of them in the home without having to deal with all of the loads of laundry, and cleaning of carpets, and back of sofas, and bedding, and all of that, is to close the house and take off for 55 hours. Go spend 3 days someplace else. Treat the one child that's got it. And when you come home, you've got a lice-free home.
By taking the above mentioned steps, body lice can be completely destroyed.
Scratching can make your skin more likely to become infected. Because body lice spread easily to others, people you live with and sexual partners need to be treated as well. In rare cases, lice carry uncommon diseases, such as trench fever, which may be spread to humans.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Contact your provider if you have lice in your clothing or itching that does not go away.
If you know someone is infested with body lice, avoid direct contact with that person, the person's clothing, and bedding.
Elika Hoss, MD, Senior Associate Consultant, Mayo Clinic, Scottsdale, AZ. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
Dinulos JGH. Infestations and bites. In: Dinulos JGH, ed. Habif's Clinical Dermatology. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2021:chap 15.
Varma A, Kim HJ, Levitt JO. Pediculosis. In: Lebwohl MG, Heymann WR, Coulson IH, Murrell DF, eds. Treatment of Skin Disease: Comprehensive Therapeutic Strategies. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 184.