Can You Get Lice From a Pool?

Reviewed by Andrada Simion, Master of Science in Chemistry

Can you catch head lice from a swimming pool? The answer is a little more complicated than you might expect, so let’s review the facts:

  1. Can head lice survive underwater?
    According to the Center for Disease Control these insects can survive under water for an extended period of time. Most sources suggest they can go without oxygen for as long as eight hours, but a study out of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln suggests they can live in water at certain temperatures for as long as 14 hours.
  2. Does chlorine kill head lice?
    Chlorine does NOT kill head lice. In fact, the CDC says swimming in chlorinated water within two days of taking a treatment for them has been shown to make certain treatments less effective.
  3. Can head lice swim?
    Lice Master, the largest, privately owned national head lice treatment in the United States, says head they cannot swim, so while they are unlikely to drown, they cannot move through water from the head of one person to another.
  4. Can you get head lice by swimming in the same pool as someone who has them?
    While this is not technically impossible if swimmers are cuddling or rough housing in the pool, getting an infestation while swimming in a pool is very unlikely. They cling very tightly to the hair of their host and do not swim, so they are not able to travel from one host to another through the water, per information from the Lice Clinics of America.
  5. Can you get head lice from sharing towels?
    Yes, you can absolutely get an infestation from sharing a towel with a person who already has an infestation. In fact, this is by far the most common way they are spread at swimming pools, according to the Lice Clinics of Texas, because they often crawl from people’s heads to objects that they come into direct contact with. So, if two swimmers use the same towel to dry their hair and one of them has an infestation, it is very likely they will give it to the other.
  6. Should I keep my child home from the pool if I believe they have head lice?
    While it is possible that your child could go to a swimming pool and not spread head lice to anyone, if you believe an infestation has infiltrated your household the best practice is to keep yourself and your family quarantined until the bugs have been eliminated.
  7. Is there a season when head lice are most common?
    These outbreaks often see a spike in the summertime, according to Lice Clinics of America. So, as the weather is getting warmer and people are gathering together more, outbreaks will become more common. Even if your child does not get an infestation while swimming, the outbreaks often occur at group events that may or may not include swimming like summer camps, vacations, and spring break trips.
  8. If I believe my child has already contracted lice at a swimming pool, what should I do?
    If you believe you or your child have already gotten an infestation from a swimming pool there are several steps you should take. To get rid of them, according to the CDC, you need to carefully check every person in your household’s hair for the bugs and apply medicine, or pediculicide, to the affected person or people’s hair. Most of these medications, which can be bought over the counter or with a prescription, include a fine comb to get nits (eggs) or dead ones out of the hair. An infected person’s hair should be combed and checked at least every three days for two to three days to avoid reinfestation.
    If you believe the infestation in your home came from a public pool or hotel swimming pool you should contact the location and let them know, especially if they provide towels. If you believe your family contracted the bugs while at a function or gathering, let other people in attendance know that there could be a potential outbreak.

So, while you are unlikely to get these pesky little bugs from swimming in a pool, chlorine will not kill them if they are already there. When it comes to lice and swimming pools, towels are your biggest concern, so be sure to talk to your kids about not sharing towels.