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8 Facts for Parents – What to Know About Head Lice

It’s the time of year when kids gather in school. They’re building friendships, sharing curiosity and… yep, sometimes swapping head lice. It can happen in any school with any kids. Personal hygiene and home or school cleanliness has nothing to do with head lice or their spread.

If you have children, you may already be familiar with head lice. Head lice infestations are common in pre-schools and elementary schools. They can spread around to everyone in a household, regardless of age.


Getting Acquainted with… Head Lice

Head lice are small parasitic insects. They live on the scalp. They like the areas behind and around ears and near the neckline at the back of the head. Sometimes they can be in the eyelashes or eyebrows, but that’s uncommon.

Lice start as eggs, or nits, that are tiny. Nymphs hatch from eggs. Nymphs look like a small version of the adult. The adult louse (singular for lice) is about the size of a sesame seed. It has six legs and is tan to light gray.

Females are bigger than the males and can lay about six eggs every day. An adult louse can live up to 30 days on a person. They live only a couple of days when not on a person. Lice feed on human blood to live.


How Do Head Lice Get Around?

These bugs cannot hop or fly. They typically crawl from person to person when head-to-head contact is made. It’s less common but they can also move from person to person when clothing, hats, scarves, combs, brushes, towels or plush toys are shared.


What Are the Signs of Head Lice?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says a person with head lice may notice:

  • A tickling feeling of something moving in the hair. That happens because there is something moving in the hair. (You’re right, that’s a little gross.)
  • Itching. This can be caused by an allergic reaction to a louse bite.
  • Irritability and trouble sleeping. This can happen because head lice are most active in the dark.
  • Sores on the head caused by scratching. The sores can become infected by bacteria found on the skin. (Saying “ewwwww” now would be totally understandable.)


OK, Let’s Bring Up Some Good News

The good news is: Head lice are not considered a medical or public health hazard by the CDC. And they are not known to spread disease.

Dogs, cats and other pets do not seem to help spread head lice. That’s another reason to love your pet.

For the most part, head lice are spread by simple contact between people. If you can avoid close contact, you can reduce the risk of spreading the little pests.

Cases of shared sports helmets spreading head lice are rare. The feet of head lice are adapted to hang onto hair, but they tend to fall off surfaces such as plastic, metal, polished synthetic leathers and such.


How to Get Rid of Head Lice

The first step in dealing with head lice is accepting that their presence is not a reflection on you as a parent. They’re just little critters doing what they were made to do. Your family just happened to be in their path.

If you suspect head lice, check everyone in your household, especially those who share a bed. You can check for head lice by using a special metal “nit comb.” It allows you to part the hair for a good look at the scalp of a person who may have head lice.

If you need to check for lice, be patient. And remember to check the areas we mentioned that lice prefer — by the ears and above the back of the neck.

If you find nits or lice, you can manually remove them with fingernails. The nits attach to hair using a cement-like substance. Don’t be surprised if it takes some effort to work them loose. Again, patience is an advantage for this project. And thoroughly wash your hands when you’re done.

Do not share items such as hats, towels and grooming aids used by the person affected by lice.


Scalp Treatments

As a next step, you can treat head lice with a home remedy or an over-the-counter (OTC) medicated shampoo. You can search “home remedy for head lice” online.

If you’d like to try an OTC medication, you’ll want to look for products containing pediculicides (medicines that kill lice). Look for medications that contain pyrethrins or permethrin. These products are designed to kill the eggs.

If you’re not sure about which product(s) to choose, ask your health care provider or pharmacist for recommendations.

Thoroughly read and carefully follow directions for these products. Not all products are the same, so review application and re-application instructions for each product.

Keep all these products out of eyes. If they get in the eyes, immediately rinse the eyes.

If one over-the-counter product doesn’t work, try another with a different active ingredient. If these efforts do not resolve the issue, see your health care professional. Prescription medications are available for problematic cases.


Prevent Re-infestations

Immediately after treatment, the person you’ve treated should put on clean clothing.

Gather items such as hats, scarves, pillowcases, bedding, clothing and towels used by people with lice. Gather things they used in the two days before treatment.

Wash the items in water 130 degrees or warmer. The items should be in the water at least five minutes. Then dry on a hot air cycle.

If an item can’t be laundered, it can be dry cleaned or sealed in a plastic bag for two weeks.

Soak combs and hairbrushes in water that’s at least 130 degrees for five to 10 minutes.

Vacuum furniture and floors. This can pick up hairs that may have nits attached.

There… that’s probably all you’d ever want to know about head lice. Oh, there’s one more thing.


Other Types of Lice

Along with head lice, there’s also:

  • Pubic lice. Also called crabs. They’re found in the pubic area, and sometimes on eyelashes, eyebrows, under arms and on chest hair. They’re rarely found on the scalp.
  • Body lice. They live and lay their eggs (nits) in clothing seams. They crawl to the body to feed.

Treatment for other types of lice are similar to head lice. The other types of lice are less common.


Still Have Questions?

If you have questions about dealing with lice, visit with a health care professional. You can schedule an appointment online or try E-Care Consultation. A pharmacist is another helpful resources.

Lice are aggravating, but you can work your way through this nuisance.

Meet the Author

Pradeep Kumar, MDis a board-certified pediatrician at Aurora Health Center in Racine, WI. 

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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