What are Body Lice?

J.M. Willhite

Body lice are parasitic insects that require the blood of a human host to survive. Treatment to eliminate body lice necessitates responsible hygiene practices, such as showering or bathing with soap. If additional treatment is necessary, topical over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription-strength medications may be used to eliminate infestation. Historically, lice have been known to transmit infectious diseases, including typhus fever.

Treatment may require topical medication in addition to good hygiene.
Treatment may require topical medication in addition to good hygiene.

Lice thrive in densely populated, unsanitary environments and may be easily spread from one person to another through direct, interpersonal contact. Since unsanitary conditions also favor the louse, individuals who do not bathe regularly are considered an ideal host. It is important to remember that body lice do not discriminate and may attach to any human host with whom they come into contact. Lice that separate from a human host or somehow become dislodged from clothing survive less than one week if no new host is found.

Condoms may be ineffective against some sexually-transmitted conditions, such as pubic lice and scabies.
Condoms may be ineffective against some sexually-transmitted conditions, such as pubic lice and scabies.

Nits, or louse eggs, deposited by adult lice in the seams of fabric may survive without any human contact for up to a month before expiring. Once they have fully matured, body lice are considered to be the largest member of the louse family. Also known as Pediculus humanus corporis, a full-grown louse can reach 2 mm (1/8 inch) or slightly larger in length. Equipped with six legs and no wings, an adult louse is light in color that may range from almost clear to reddish-brown.

Hygiene practices such as bathing with soap can help to eliminate body lice.
Hygiene practices such as bathing with soap can help to eliminate body lice.

A diagnosis of body lice may be easily made with a visual examination. Though an individual will generally present with tell-tale signs of skin irritation, the presence of the louse itself is easily identifiable. Body lice may generally be seen moving about on the inside of one’s clothing, and if the infestation is severe they may be seen on the skin as well. Oftentimes, nits, that are usually opaque and yellowish in color, may be identified in the seams of one’s clothing. As a precautionary measure, individuals diagnosed with body lice are usually checked for both head and pubic lice as well.

Body lice tend to gravitate toward skin creases, such as the armpits.
Body lice tend to gravitate toward skin creases, such as the armpits.

Generally, body lice gravitate to areas where the skin creases or folds, such as the armpits and groin region. In their wake, lice will leave skin inflammation where they bite and feed. Individuals will often experience intense itching that, with aggressive scratching, can lead to secondary bacterial infections. It is not uncommon for individuals to develop bumps and a rash-like irritation in areas where lice repeatedly go to feed. Prolonged infestation can also contribute to changes in skin texture and pigmentation.

People who are diagnosed with body lice should also be checked for head and pubic lice.
People who are diagnosed with body lice should also be checked for head and pubic lice.

Proper hygiene and regular showering with warm, soapy water is generally enough to rid one’s body of lice. Individuals with heavy louse infestation may require additional topical treatment to eradicate any remaining lice and alleviate skin irritation. Antibiotics may be used to eliminate infection. Additionally, one’s clothing and personal possessions must be thoroughly cleaned to rid them of nits and prevent re-infestation.

Proper hygiene and showering regularly with warm, soapy water is usually sufficient for removing body lice.
Proper hygiene and showering regularly with warm, soapy water is usually sufficient for removing body lice.

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