Body Lice

1 What are Body Lice?

Adult body lice are tiny insects, which appear like a sesame seed, and measure about 2.3–3.6 mm in length.

Body lice live and lay eggs on your clothing and bedding, and move to your skin several times a day to feed on your blood.

The most common sites of body lice bites are

  • around the neck,
  • shoulders,
  • armpits,
  • waist,
  • groin area

where the seams of your clothing comes in direct contact with your skin.

Body lice infestations also called pediculosis commonly spread from one person to another but are generally limited to persons living in crowded and poor hygienic conditions such as refugee camps and shelters for the homeless people.

Body lice are known to transmit certain diseases such as

  • epidemic typhus,
  • trench fever,
  • epidemic relapsing fever.

An allergic reaction to body louse bite causes intense itching with a rash. If a body lice infestation lasts for a long-term, areas of skin heavily bitten by the lice becomes thick and dark, especially in the middle portion of the body.

This condition is called "vagabond’s disease". Body lice infestations can be controlled by maintaining good hygiene.

Clothes and mattresses that have been infested with body lice should be washed with hot, soapy water followed by machine drying using the hot cycle.

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2 Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of a body lice infestation are:

  • Severe itching (pruritus) around the waist, in the armpits, and in areas where the clothing is tight and remains close to your body
  • Rash that develops due to allergic reaction to the bites
  • Red colored bumps on your skin, which may turn into a scab or crust after scratching
  • Thickened or discolored skin, around the waist or groin area if you have got body lice infestation from a long time

When to see your doctor

Consult your doctor if the improved hygiene measures taken are ineffective in controlling the infestation, or if you develop a skin infection from scratching the area bitten by body lice.

3 Causes

When it comes to causes of body lice, you can contract it by coming into contact with another person who has the condition.

Although body lice appear similar to head lice, these have different habits. While head lice are seen in between your hair and feed on your scalp, body lice typically live in your clothing and bedding. These move to your skin many times in a day to feed on blood.

The seams present in your clothes are the most common sites for body lice to lay their eggs (nits). Body lice spreads through direct contact with a person who has body lice, or through contact with articles such as

  • clothing,
  • beds or bed linens,
  • towels that have been used by an infested person.

4 Making a Diagnosis

No specific diagnosis is needed for Body lice.

You may need to consult your doctor, if you are not able to get rid of your body lice infestation on your own.

What you can do

Before going to the appointment, you may prepare answers for the following questions:

  • From how long do you think you have got body lice?
  • What symptoms do you have?
  • How do you think you got infested with body lice?
  • What kind of treatments have you tried so far?
  • Do you have any other chronic health problems?
  • Do you take any medications or supplements?

What to expect from your doctor

During the physical examination, your doctor will check your skin and the seams of your clothing.

If crawling lice or eggs are found in the seams of your clothes, this confirms body lice infestation. Sometimes, a magnifying lens might be needed to find out lice or nits, although most of the times, body lice and nits are large enough to be seen with our naked eye.

5 Treatment

An infestation of body lice is primarily treated by improvement of personal hygiene measures of the infested person, which includes:

  • Thorough washing of your body and other contaminated materials with soap and hot water
  • Changing clothes regularly, and wearing clean clothes
  • Clothing, bedding, and towels used by an infested person should be laundered using hot water, at a temperature of 130° and machine dried using the hot cycle
  • Dry clean and iron the clothing that cannot be washed

If all these measures seem to be ineffective in controlling the infestation, you can try using an over-the-counter lotion or shampoo — such as Nix or Rid.

If that still doesn't work, your doctor will give you a prescription lotion. Medicines that kill lice, called pediculicides, are toxic to humans because of which, these should be used with caution.

A pediculicide should be applied in the same manner as instructed on the bottle or by your physician.

6 Prevention

The following measures can be taken to prevent body lice infestation and control the spread of body lice:

  • Avoid close contact or sharing your clothing, towels or bedding with a person infested with body lice
  • Bathe daily and wear clean and properly laundered clothes. Launder infested clothes at least once in a week.
  • Infested clothes and bedding should be washed in hot water at temperature of at least 130°F and dried using high heat drying cycle.
  • Clothes and materials that are not washable should be dry-cleaned
  • Fumigation or dusting process using chemical insecticides may be done to prevent the spread of body lice in certain conditions such as epidemic typhus

7 Lifestyle and Coping

There are different ways to adapt your lifestyle in coping with body lice.

You can get rid of body lice by washing yourself and your personal things that might get contaminated thoroughly.

Infested bedding and clothing should be washed with hot, soap water, and machine dry using high heat for at least 20 minutes.

Clothes that are not washable can be dry cleaned and ironed. Materials that cannot be washed should be sealed in a plastic bag and stored for two weeks in a warm place.

Mattresses, couches, and other upholstered furnitures can be hot ironed or sprayed with lice-killing products to get rid of eggs hiding in the seams.

Getting exposed to infested items should be avoided for about two weeks.

8 Risk and Complications

Risk factors

Body lice infestation usually thrives in unhygienic conditions and people who live in crowded areas with poor hygiene are at a higher risk of body lice infestation.

They include:

  • War refugees
  • Homeless people
  • Survivors of natural disasters or war

Body lice infestations spread rapidly in such people as they do not have access to regular bathing and changing into clean clothes.

This condition can occur in people of all races.


Body lice infestations do not cause any major problems. However, in a few cases, a body lice infestation may lead to complications such as:

Secondary infections

Skin gets irritated when body lice scratch and dig into your skin to feed on your blood. If you start scratching to alleviate the intense itching, it will further irritate your skin, and lead to secondary infections if there is a breach in the skin.

Skin changes

If you have got body lice infestation for a long time, you may see skin changes such as thickening and darkening — particularly around your waist, groin or upper thighs.

Spread of disease

Body lice can transmit some bacterial diseases, such as typhus, relapsing fever or trench fever.