What’s The Difference Between Dandruff and Nits?

Head lice and dandruff are both relatively common conditions that affect the scalp. When checking for head lice sometimes nits can be confused with flakes of dandruff because of their similar appearance. So, how do you tell the difference between nits and dandruff?

Definition of nits and dandruff

Nits is a term used to describe empty head lice eggshells.

Head lice and nits can affect anyone of any age but is more common in school aged children between 4 and 11 years old.

Dandruff is a common non-inflammatory skin condition which results excessive amounts of dry skin being shed from the scalp.

Dandruff affects around 50% of the global population and tends to develop at puberty and becomes less common in people over 50.

Different signs and symptoms of head lice vs dandruff?

Itching is a symptom of both head lice and dandruff.  However, there are other symptoms that can help you differentiate nits versus dandruff.

Head lice symptoms include

  • - A tickly feeling or moving sensation on the head – caused by the movement of the head lice
  • - Finding head lice and nits in the hair (usually close to the scalp behind the ears, near the temples and nape of the neck)
  • - Peppery pillow or scalp – a pepper like dust may be found and is caused by louse droppings.
  • - Small red bumps or sores – these sores may be caused by an excessive allergic reaction to head lice bites
  • - Oozing crusty sores – Excessive scratching can lead to a bacterial infection which causes oozing, crusty sores to develop.
  • - Swollen lymph nodes (glands) on the back or front of the neck and fever which may indicate a bacterial infection
  • - Difficulty sleeping – loss of sleep can occur due to relentless itching
  • - Irritability – usually due to the annoyance of itching or loss of sleep
  • - Anxiety – some people feel very anxious or stressed due to the stigma associated with head lice

 Dandruff symptoms include:

  • - An itchy scalp
  • - Flaky skin that is either very oily or very dry
  • - White or yellowish flakes on clothes
  • - Red patches on the scalp
  • - Symptoms that worsen with stress or in the winter and dry weather

Important differences between nits and dandruff

  1. Cause – nits are caused by parasitic insects called head lice and dandruff can be caused by yeast, fungal infections, and dry skin conditions like seborrheic dermatitis.
  2. Location – dandruff can be present anywhere or the scalp whereas head lice like the lay their eggs (nits) at the nape of the neck, behind the ears and near the temples where it is warmer
  3. Appearance – nits are attached directly to the hair (live eggs within 1cm of scalp, hatched eggs after 1cm), whereas dandruff flakes are not attached to the hair and can easily be removed
  4. Who is affected – dandruff usually starts in adolescents, head lice and nits tend to affect school-aged children
  5. Contagion – head lice and nits are contagious, dandruff is not contagious