Eyelash lice: How do you get them and what are the treatments?
Lice are tiny insects that feed on human blood and can live on the head, body, pubic area or even at the base of the eyelashes. Lice living on eyelashes are usually pubic lice (called Pthirus pubis) that have been transferred to the eyelashes by hand contact from the genital area. Pubic lice (often called “crabs”) are most often found in the genital area, but can also nest in hair on the stomach, chest, thighs, beard, armpits, eyebrows and eyelashes.
The medical term for eyelash lice is phthiriasis palpebrarum.
Eyelash lice live at the root of the lash and emit a sticky substance that helps their eggs attach to the hair shaft, and their presence can lead to intense itching. Eyelash lice can be successfully treated with your doctor’s guidance.
Three types of lice can live on your body
Three different types of lice can live on humans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They are:
Pediculus humanus capitis (head lice)
Pediculus humanus corporis (body lice)
Pthirus pubis (pubic lice)
Symptoms of eyelash lice
Eyelash lice can cause extreme itching, similar to that of pubic and head lice. The itching is most noticeable at the root of the lash and can be more severe at night when lice are more active.
Other common symptoms of eyelash lice include:
Watering and tearing of the eyes
A tickling or tearing feeling
Dark spots at the base of the lashes
How do you know you have eyelash lice?
Eyelash lice are not the only eyelash bugs. There are also eyelash mites, or demodex. These tiny insects can also cause itching on the lashes and surrounding skin, as well as crusty eyelashes.
Eyelash lice can be mistaken for a condition called seborrheic blepharitis, which leads to greasy flakes around the lashes and red eyelids. Another condition called lid eczema that leads to scaly, crusty eyelids can look similar to an infestation of eyelash lice.
Your doctor will be able to tell you whether you have eyelash lice, eyelash mites or another condition.
What is the life cycle of eyelash lice?
If you discover that you have eyelash lice, check your pubic hair and armpits for lice as well. Since eyelash lice are usually pubic lice, they have the following lifecycle:
The lice eggs (called nits) take six to 10 days to grow and then hatch into nymphs. The nymphs take two to three weeks to grow into adults that can reproduce. The adults can live for a month, and during that time a female will lay about 30 eggs (or nits).
Can you get eyelash lice by wearing eyelash extensions?
Eyelash extension lice made headlines in 2019 when doctors and optometrists reported that they were seeing an increase in cases of lash lice in women who wore false eyelashes. This was said to be due to bacterial contamination of the eyelid from eyelash extensions that weren’t being properly cleaned.
Though it is true that lice live in hair, and that some lash extensions have the texture of real hair, the condition is rare. Regardless, anyone who uses eyelash extensions must keep them clean, and make sure to keep eyelids clean as well.
How can you avoid eyelash lice?
The best way to avoid eyelash lice is to avoid pubic lice. Pubic lice are caught from direct contact with someone else suffering from pubic lice, or from sharing clothing, personal items or a bed with them.
Always practice good hygiene, and if by chance you are suffering from pubic lice, don’t touch your face without thoroughly washing your hands.
How do you treat eyelash lice?
Pubic lice in the eyelashes and eyebrows can be treated in several ways.
A special, ophthalmic-grade (meant for the delicate eyelid and available only by prescription from your doctor) petroleum jelly can be applied with a cotton swab to the eyelids and lashes two to four times a day for 10 days or longer. The salve covers the lice and their eggs and suffocates them. The eyelids should be thoroughly cleaned each morning. When the lice are dead, they can be carefully removed with tweezers. Note: Do not use regular petroleum jelly, as it can irritate the eyelids.
For those who find it difficult to apply petroleum jelly with a cotton swab, dye strips can be covered with the petroleum jelly and applied to the eyelashes for several nights.
Over-the-counter lotions and shampoos for lice should be applied to the pubic area, following instructions on the packaging. These can also be applied to the eyelids, but this must be done under a doctor’s care. These medications are safe and effective when used exactly according to the instructions of your doctor.
All clothing, bedding, towels and other items that might be contaminated should be washed before treatment. Use hot, soapy water — at least 130 degrees F (54 degrees C) — and dry the items at high heat in the dryer for at least 20 minutes.
Clothing that can’t be washed can be dry-cleaned. Items that can’t be washed can be sealed in airtight plastic bags for two weeks until the lice and their eggs have died.
If you still suffer from eyelash lice after the above approaches, your doctor may prescribe a topical anti-parasite medication or an oral anti-parasite medicine that will kill the lice. Worst case scenario, your eye doctor may need to cut or trim your eyelashes, but this is a more extreme treatment and is less common.
When should I see an eye doctor?
If you think you’re experiencing symptoms caused by eyelash lice, contact an eye doctor for proper assessment and treatment.
Anything that creates discomfort in your eyelids is going to make your life unpleasant, so it’s a good idea to set up an appointment if eyelash lice, or any other condition, has started bothering you or affected your vision.
Notes and References
1. Phthiriasis Palpebrarum. National Center for Biotechnology Information. July 2020.
2. Parasites - Lice. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. September 2019.
3. Blepharitis. American Optometric Association. Accessed March 2021.
4. Eyelid Dermatitis (xeroderma of the eyelids, eczema of the eyelids, atopic dermatitis, allergic contact dermatitis, irritant contact dermatitis, seborrheic dermatitis of the eyelids). Dermatology Advisor. 2017.
5. Pediculosis and Pthiriasis (Lice Infestation) Treatment & Management. Medscape. March 2021.
6. Pubic “Crab” Lice: Treatment. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. September 2019.
7. Treatment of Phthiriasis Palpebrarum and Crab Louse: Petrolatum Jelly and 1% Permethrin Shampoo. National Center for Biotechnology Information. September 2015.
Page updated April 2021