How to know if you've got a dry scalp & not nits

Updated February 21, 2017

Dry scalp symptoms can include itching, flaky skin and inflamed areas on the scalp that can produce dandruff flakes in the hair. Because of the similarity in symptoms and appearance between dry scalp and lice, knowing the difference is essential to proper treatment. Nits are small, whitish egg sacks lice lay on the hair shaft very near the scalp. The nits can be mistaken easily for flaking skin. In addition, bites from lice can appear as reddish bumps and be mistaken for irritated dry skin patches such as those that appear with dry scalp conditions.

Seat the symptomatic person in a comfortable position on a stool or a chair without arms so you can manoeuvre easily to examine the scalp completely. Shine a bright light onto the person's head.

Tilt the person's chin down to expose the nape of the neck where lice, lice nits and scalp flakes are found most frequently. Part the hair horizontally 1/2 inch above the neck. Clip the top portion of hair to keep it out of the way.

Comb the unclipped hair down smoothly and examine for whitish flakes. Scalp flakes move easily or can be flicked off with a fingernail. Nits stay stuck to the hair shaft unless aggressively pinched and pulled off.

Continue examining the neck area by unclipping the next 1/2-inch section of hair above the initial section and combing it smooth. Repeat the examination procedure at the hairline around the ears, moving upward in 1/2-inch sections.

Examine any whitish flake with a small magnifying glass to identify its shape. If the flake has a circular but slightly random shape -- it may also be flat -- it's dandruff or flaking skin. If the flake has an elongated oval shape and clearly is attached to a single shaft of hair, it's a nit.


The lighter the hair colour, the more difficult it is to see dandruff or lice nits. However, flaky scalp and dandruff will brush off onto a dark shirt or sweater. If you are experiencing whitish flakes on the shoulder fabric of your clothes, it cannot come from lice nits since they adhere to the hair shaft and do not flake off.


While dry scalp is not contagious, lice are highly contagious and must be treated properly for complete elimination. Lice nits cannot be removed adequately from the entire head through combing alone. Contact your personal physician, school nurse or haircare professional for proper diagnosis and treatment suggestions.

Things You'll Need

  • Small-toothed comb
  • Hair clips
  • Bright light
  • Small magnifying glass
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About the Author

Kimberli Nalven has been writing for more than 15 years and freelancing for over 10 years. She's experienced in the fields of computer and cellular phone technology, integrated medicine and health and fitness. She writes a monthly column for a local paper and posts daily Internet content in the area of elementary-years parenting.