Head lice & bacteria: Partners in crime

Head lice come with lots of bacteria

Head lice aren’t alone when they are in your child’s (and often your) hair. Whilst humans are host to lice, lice are in turn hosts to bacteria – lots of it.

The bacteria is living on them and in them and they are spreading it in their faeces, on the outside skeletons they shed as they grow, on their eggs as they lay them on the hair and on their tiny, disruptive, horrible little bodies. 

The bacteria are on your child’s head and hair, and as they itch and scratch from the irritation lice can cause, that gets under their fingernails and into their system. 

And as they sleep, they inhale the bacteria as their hair falls around their face.

Your child can end up feeling lousy – a term that comes from having head lice – as the bacteria and the lice run their system down.

What we know about the bacteria lice carry

The truth is some research has been done on this, but scientists agree that a lot more is necessary, especially as they are seeing changes in the bacteria in some parts of the world.

What is clear is that as lice evolve and change so do the bacteria they carry.

A study by the University of Georgia in 2017 established this relationship – it found that the evolution of the bacteria is closely associated with how lice have evolved, and in turn how humans have evolved. All three are closely related to the others. Scientists call this an ‘evolutionary tree’.

These bacteria are important to lice because they provide an opportunity for the female head lice to transfer essential B-vitamins across to the eggs, which is essential to their development. So, the bacteria have a role in assisting their host, the head louse. Us humans on the other hand don’t get any benefits from lice – it’s a parasite that only takes.

Head lice are one of the oldest parasites to live on human beings.

Through ancient fossilised lice, it has been possible for scientists to trace information about human mobility and some aspects of human development. When scientists sequenced the lice genome they found it carried a record of our human past in its DNA.

The University of Georgia scientists are now examining how the bacteria living on lice have evolved through this ‘evolutionary tree’ to help understand how that current bacteria may change and affect both head lice and humans.

Find out more about the enemy with these facts and figures about lice.

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