What Is a Nit Comb?

Mark Wollacott

A nit comb is a comb used to remove lice and lice eggs from a person’s hair. They are usually used on children, but can also be used on adults. The term nit comes from Britain and is used to refer to head lice and, more specifically, the eggs of such lice. Due to different terminology, a nit comb is also called a lice comb in America.

A head louse.
A head louse.

A case of nits or head lice is called pediculosis capitis. Since World War I, they have also been referred to as ‘cooties.’ They represent a parasitic infestation of the hair. This usually means head hair, but can also include other areas of the body abundant with hair such as the pubic region and the legs.

A nit comb is used to remove lice and nets from a person's hair.
A nit comb is used to remove lice and nets from a person's hair.

Nits are one form of many types of lice that can infest a body and should not be confused with body lice and crab lice. Most forms of lice feed off debris on the body such as dead skin cells, however, head lice feed off blood. They tend to leave small, almost unnoticeable, bite marks. Head lice do not carry any infectious diseases.

The nit comb has been found among some of the oldest man-made artifacts in world archaeology. The oldest-surviving examples have been found in the Near East. The oldest nit comb dates back 14,000 years and was made of bone. Other old nit combs were made from bone, ivory and sometimes boxwood. Due to the nature of decay, wooden nit combs are less likely to survive in the archaeological record.

Burial excavations across the world, including Egyptian tombs, have shown that the nit comb was a common burial good. Cultures such as Egypt believed the deceased took all the items buried with them to the afterlife. It is clear from the archaeological record that they believed the nit comb to be vitally important. A number of such finds, and especially some found in Israel and the Netherlands, have come with preserved head lice corpses.

People used the nit comb to remove head lice and nit eggs from an infected person’s hair. Before the invention of chemical shampoos, nit removal was a laborious process. The most efficient means of removing them was to shave someone’s hair. Failing that, people used the comb to remove as many nits as they could before removing the rest by hand, one at a time.

Hand picking nits led to the term ‘nitpicking’ to mean picking at the fine details. Using a nit comb led to its own term, ‘to go over something with a fine-toothed comb.’ The term is used when someone looks for the fine details of an issue or contract.

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