With kids back in school, it’s probably only a matter of time until you hear about head lice. Anyone who comes in close contact with someone who already has head lice is at risk for acquiring head lice as they are easily transmitted from head to head. Preschool and elementary-school children and their families are most often infected. While head lice infestation is very common and has been around for centuries, they are contagious, an annoyance and disruption to family life, and sometimes tough to get rid of—been there, done that!
The head louse is a tiny, wingless parasitic insect that lives among human hairs and feeds on tiny amounts of blood drawn from the scalp. While they are frustrating to deal with, they aren’t dangerous as they don’t spread disease. However, their bites make a child’s head itchy and scratching can lead to infection. It is best to treat head lice quickly once they are found as they spread easily from person to person.
Head scratching is usually the first sign that your child has head lice. However, when scratching is noticed, the child already has an active case. Therefore, it is best to check your child’s scalp weekly for nits (lice eggs) by parting the child’s hair into small sections and looking particularly near the scalp, around and behind the ears, and near the neckline at the back of the head. Even though small, nits can be seen by the naked eye. Adult lice lay eggs on the hair shafts close to the scalp; nits look like dandruff, but can’t be removed by brushing or shaking them off. The eggs hatch within 1 to 2 weeks after they have been laid. After hatching, the egg casing remains firmly attached to the hair shaft and the newly immerged nymphs, smaller than a sesame seed with six tiny legs, are on the move seeking blood to survive. Nymphs become adults within 1 to 2 weeks and are gray-white in color and about the size of a sesame seed. Nymphs and adults are often harder to spot as they move fast. See the Center for Disease Control (CDC) website for pictures of the various lice stages and for the best information on how to treat lice.
Lice cannot jump or survive long without a human host. They cannot spread to pets as they can only survive on human blood. They are spread by direct contact with the hair of an infested person. Cleaning is a necessary part of ridding the home of head lice. Here are some simple, but time consuming, ways to get rid of lice and prevent re-infestation:
- Wash all bed linens and clothing that’s been recently worn by the infested person in very hot water; dry with the hot cycle of the dryer for at least 20 minutes.
- Put stuffed animals and non-washable items in airtight bags for at least 3 days. Place the bags in the garage or someplace away from constant human contact.
- Vacuum carpets and upholstered furniture (car seats, too); dispose of the vacuum cleaner bag in an airtight bag away from the home.
- Clean hair-care items like combs, barrettes, hair ties or bands, headbands, and brushes by soaking in rubbing alcohol or medicated shampoo for an hour. If tolerated, these items can also be washed in the dishwasher.
Finally, know that having head lice is NOT a sign of poor hygiene or a dirty home. They are a problem for all mankind. Remind your kids to avoid head-to-head contact with other children and avoid sharing brushes and hair/head attire. Most importantly, help them understand that while having lice can be embarrassing, they have not done anything wrong and they are not dirty.